Final Columbia Disaster Report Released
NASA  /  Getty Images file
The left side of the Space Shuttle Columbia is seen during launch on Jan 16, 2003 at Kennedy Space Center.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/30/2004 7:34:54 PM ET 2004-01-31T00:34:54
ANALYSIS

Most regard Sunday as the anniversary of the space shuttle Columbia disaster. But it's not. The shuttle and its crew of seven were doomed 16 days earlier when something sinister happened during their liftoff and climb into orbit.

The day was Jan. 16, 2003 — a cool, pristine morning with a perfectly black sky.

The night's brightest sight for miles was Columbia basking in the floodlights surrounding its seaside launch pad.

Security was tighter than normal because one of the crew, Ilan Ramon, was to be the first Israeli astronaut to fly a space shuttle.

Those making their way toward the launch site saw more machine-gun-toting guards than normal. The police cars and security helicopters buzzing about in the darkness reminded all of the heightened security and fear of terrorist attacks brought on by the post-9/11 world.

Then, the darkness of disquiet gave way to a sun that rose with an abundance of brightness. It seemed to say, "Columbia, just once more, just one final launch."

The oldest and most storied of the nation's shuttles put on a Disneyesque show, climbing on twin pillars of fire, pounding the rich blue sky with constant thunder.

Disaster on takeoff
Unseen by eyes on the ground, years of growing complacency had just caught up with NASA's successes. At the start of the modern space program, there had been an almost sacred rule: Nothing shall touch the space shuttles' thermal protection systems.

Over 22 years of shuttle launches, little by little, debris, such as bits of foam from the shuttle's external fuel tank, struck the space plane's thermal protection systems. Nothing had happened.

During 88 different shuttle flights since the loss of the Challenger and its crew, shuttles returned safely with dings and gouges. None, judged the experts, posed a safety risk.

High above the launch site, a freak string of events was taking place. A chunk of foam, the size of a briefcase, popped off Columbia's external fuel tank. With a relative speed of 500 mph, it crashed through a carbon-carbon shield protecting the space plane's left wing.

The violent hit sprayed shards of carbon-carbon material throughout Columbia's wing, leaving a hole the size of a basketball.

At that moment, 81.9 seconds into their mission, Columbia's seven souls on board were doomed. Their damaged shuttle simply could not survive a fiery re-entry through their planet's atmosphere, no matter when and where they decided to land.

Blissfully unaware of problem, mission continued
Unaware that without help their deaths were certain, the seven rode on into orbit and settled down for 16 days of science. They had 28 days of life-supporting oxygen.

Meanwhile, on the ground, some charged with the doomed astronauts' safety worried over video scenes of the foam crashing into Columbia's wing.

If it was determined that the strike was a fatal blow, they must do something.

First, NASA officials asked those in charge of America's spy satellite assets to take a look at the wing. Then, for a reason never explained, they dropped the request.

An inspection by the two spacewalkers on board Columbia was ruled out. Instead, a study by engineers suggested the foam impact was not a safety risk.

Columbia's mission managers went with that. Most were comfortable with the study instead of looking for themselves, and they simply whistled away the four weeks they had to return the crew safely to earth.

Had they looked...
Stacked and ready to fly, the shuttle Atlantis could have been moved to the launch pad for a plausible, albeit risky, rescue.

Veteran spacewalker Story Musgrave choreographed a 15-minute inspection by the two spacewalkers on board Columbia that would have given them an on-the-scene look at the danger.

Had they looked, the odds were the seven astronauts could have been rescued, and Columbia could have remained in orbit while experts worked on a plan of possible repair, or a flight path to plunge the derelict craft into the Pacific.

Instead, 16 minutes from home a year ago, the super-hot gas of re-entry simply charged through the hole in the carbon-carbon shield and devoured Columbia over central Texas.

Jay Barbree is an NBC News correspondent and the only reporter who has covered all 144 missions flown by American astronauts.

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