It was 13 years ago that we began to hear the terrible news: Space Shuttle Columbia had been lost during re-entry into our atmosphere. There were no survivors.
I had the honor of knowing the seven people who were lost that day aboard Columbia. They were: Col. Rick Husband, Lt. Col. Michael Anderson, Cmdr. Laurel Clark, Capt. David Brown, Cmdr. William McCool, Dr. Kalpana Chawla and Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force.
And I can tell you that they were brave explorers, tireless public servants, and really good people. They knew spaceflight was a risky business. They flew anyway.
Their families and loved ones are in my thoughts often. But especially today. I hope that those they loved always have the respect and gratitude of this country.
On February 1, 2003, the crew of Columbia was preparing to return home. For nearly 16 days, the crew had orbited above Earth at 17,500 miles per hour, conducting research into microgravity and its effects, along with a lot of other experiments. They traveled more than six million miles. And then, after slowing the shuttle slightly, they put Columbia on course for re-entry and a final touchdown at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.
But as the orbiter sped east through our skies, across New Mexico and then into Texas, the crew was faced with the rapid, cascading failures we often see in the simulator. But this time the failures were real.
The last audio transmission from the cockpit came just before 8 a.m. Central Time, about 16 minutes before Columbia was supposed to land. Columbia’s commander, Rick Husband, said “Roger” and then was abruptly cut off.
What Rick and his crew did not know was that hot plasma had entered the wing and was destroying the vehicle’s structure from the inside out.
Sixteen days earlier, during launch, the roots of the tragedy had taken hold: A pizza box-sized piece of insulating foam had broken loose from the shuttle’s external fuel tank as the shuttle lifted off, damaging the Thermal Protection System (TPS) that was supposed to protect the shuttle from the extreme heat during re-entry.
Over the next 42 seconds, the crew fought bravely to save the vehicle. But at about 180,000 feet and 15 times the speed of sound, the crew cabin began to break up. More than 84,000 pieces of debris would fall over East Texas.
Columbia was gone.
I was at my house in Houston when I heard that we had lost both communications and tracking with Columbia. Minutes later, I was speeding in my car down the freeway toward NASA’s Johnson Space Center. I soon joined another astronaut, Mike Good, in the contingency action center. We started going through the mishap checklist — something you train for but hope you’ll never have to do.
NASA had planned for the thousands of things that could go wrong during a shuttle mission. But we had never planned for the possibility that sort of catastrophic accident would happen within a two-hour drive of where we were sitting in Houston. It’s a big planet; the chances of that happening were minuscule.
But it had happened.
The ensuring ground search confirmed what us at NASA already knew: Our fellow astronauts were lost.
The seven astronauts who perished aboard Columbia were friends of mine and my brother Scott. Three of them — Laurel Clark, Dave Brown and Willie McCool — had been our astronaut classmates when we started at NASA in 1996. We knew them really well.
"These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life."
Thirteen years later, I still think a lot about them and that they gave their lives in service to our country and the world.
As I remember those lost explorers, I think a lot about something President George W. Bush said in his address to the nation from the Oval Office, just hours after the tragedy:
"These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life. Because of their courage and daring and idealism, we will miss them all the more."
We miss them still. And we honor their and their families’ legacies — one of service and sacrifice to our country — by continuing to answer the call to learn, discover and explore. For the crew of Columbia, for our country, and for humanity, that can never stop.