Looking back: The Columbia shuttle tragedy

The space shuttle Columbia's crew members pose for a group photo. From left, front row: commander Rick Husband, Kalpana Chawla, pilot William McCool. Back row: David Brown, Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson and Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.

Columbia was destroyed on Feb. 1, 2003, during its return to Earth, because of a hole in its wing that allowed in super-hot atmospheric gases.


Space shutle Columbia launches on mission STS-107 on Jan. 16, 2003. STS-107 was the 28th flight of the orbiter Columbia and the 113th flight overall in NASA's shuttle program. Unlike most of the shuttle missions of the time, Columbia was not headed for the International Space Station. Rather, the mission's purpose was to conduct scores of science experiments, ranging from studies of atmospheric phenomena to the effects of weightlessness on roundworms.

Earth is seen from the aft flight deck of the space shuttle Columbia on Jan. 22, 2003. The shuttle's crew members could see the wide Earth below, but they couldn't see the fatal damage that investigators concluded was done to the edge of the shuttle's left wing by a piece of flying foam insulation during the launch.

This picture of Columbia's crew members was on a roll of unprocessed film recovered from the debris after the shuttle's disintegration. The crew members strike a "flying" pose for their traditional in-flight crew portrait in the Spacehab research module. From left (bottom row), wearing red shirts to signify their shift’s color, are Kalpana Chawla, commander Rick Husband, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon. From left (top row), wearing blue shirts, are David Brown, William McCool and Michael Anderson.

The space shuttle Columbia passes over the Owens Valley Radio Observatory north of Bishop, Calif., at 5:54 a.m. PST on Feb. 1, 2003. The camera is pointed north, and the shuttle is passing from west to east, from the left to the right side of the photo. Minutes after this picture was taken, the shuttle broke apart over Texas, killing all seven astronauts.


Debris from the space shuttle Columbia streaks across the sky over Tyler, Texas, on Feb. 1, 2003. Columbia broke apart in flames 200,000 feet over Texas, killing the crew just minutes before they were to glide to a landing in Florida.

Scott Lieberman / SCOTT LIEBERMAN

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe wipes his forehead before the start of a press conference to discuss the accident involving the space shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003, at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Scott Audette / AP

Daren Richards, right, tells his 7-year-old daughter Tess about the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia while they shop at a Las Vegas Costco store on Feb. 1, 2003. Coverage of the tragedy is displayed on the television sets at left.


Smoke rises from a small brush fire started by a falling piece of debris from the space shuttle Columbia outside Athens, Texas. Thousands of pieces fell to Earth after the shuttle broke apart in the skies over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003.

Jeff Mitchell / X00193

A helmet, believed to have come from the space shuttle Columbia, lies in a field near Lufkin, Texas, on Feb. 2, 2003.

Christine Diamond / THE LUFKIN DAILY NEWS

Searchers pass a makeshift memorial while looking for debris from the space shuttle Columbia on Feb. 2, 2003, outside Hemphill, Texas. The memorial marks the spot where remains of an astronaut were found.

David J. Phillip / AP

The mother of a schoolmate of Indian-born astronaut Kalpana Chawla weeps in front of a picture adorned with marigolds during a memorial held at Kalpana's high school in her hometown of Karnal, India, on Feb. 2, 2003. While Chawla moved from Karnal more than two decades earlier, she remained a hero to the people who followed her career at NASA - a career that ended with the space shuttle catastrophe.

Elizabeth Dalziel / AP

Keegan Green, 8, is comforted by her mother Amy Green as they view debris believed to be from the space shuttle Columbia on a rural road west of Nacogdoches, Texas, on Feb. 3, 2003.

Lm Otero / AP

President George W. Bush bows his head in prayer with family members of the astronauts from the space shuttle Columbia during a memorial service on Feb. 4, 2003, at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Relatives of astronaut William McCool are to the left of the president; family members of astronaut Rick Husband are to the right of the president.

Larry Downing / X00961

Volunteers and investigators assemble to search a dense section of woods for debris from the space shuttle Columbia near Hemphill, Texas, on Feb. 9, 2003.

Rick Bowmer / AP

In the RLV Hangar at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the floor grid is dotted with pieces of Columbia debris on March 13, 2003. The Columbia Reconstruction Project Team arranged the recovered pieces of the orbiter as part of the investigation into the accident that caused the destruction of Columbia and the loss of its crew.

© Nasa Nasa / Reuters / X00653

A wreath placed by NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale and other NASA senior management is seen in front of the space shuttle Columbia memorial on Jan. 31, 2008, at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The wreath-laying ceremony was part of NASA's Day of Remembrance. Wreaths were laid in the memory of those men and women who lost their lives in the course of space exploration, including the astronaut crews of Columbia, Challenger and Apollo 1.

Bill Ingalls / NASA