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What doomed Columbia astronauts saw during final moments in their return to Earth

What doomed Columbia astronauts saw during final moments in their return to Earth

NASA's Columbia STS-107 space mission ended in tragedy back in 2003.

The Columbia STS-107 mission is one of the most tragic moments of NASA's history - and space travel in general.

Launching on January 16, it was the first space mission of 2003, and was the 28th flight of the Space Shuttle Orbiter Columbia.

Seven crew members were on board: Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel B. Clark and Ilan Ramon - and their final moments were caught on film:

The crew were on a 16-day research mission - and were 'kept busy 24 hours a day performing various chores involved with science experiments', NASA said.

They were looking at various things, including the physics of combustion of space, and the process of forming protein crystals in a more pure way than on Earth - which could potentially lead to a drug that targets specific diseases with fewer side effects.

Other experiments looked at the impact of astronaut health while in space, such as how their cardovascular system responds to gravity up there.


But tragedy occurred as the astronauts were flying home. When the space shuttle was en route to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on February 1, an issue occurred during re-entry over east Texas - this is when a spacecraft returns into the Earth's atmosphere.

'Upon reentering the atmosphere on February 1, 2003, the Columbia orbiter suffered a catastrophic failure due to a breach that occurred during launch when falling foam from the External Tank struck the Reinforced Carbon Carbon panels on the underside of the left wing,' NASA says.

The spacecraft and the seven crew members on board were lost around 15 minutes before they were scheduled to touch down in Florida.

As the cabin lost pressure, NASA said the crew members likely lost consciousness 'within seconds'.

After a report was issued, NASA's then-Deputy Associate Administrator, Wayne Hale, said: "We have evidence from some of the switch positions that the crew was trying very hard to regain control. We're talking about a very brief time in a crisis situation.


"This report confirms that although the valiant Columbia crew tried every possible way to maintain control of their vehicle, the accident was not ultimately survivable."

The seven-month investigation included a four month search across Texas to recover debris - around 38% of the spacecraft was eventually recovered, and some of the experiments were also found.

Two decades after the disaster, CBS News reported: "Columbia's fate was sealed 81.7 seconds after liftoff. The real problem, the accident board concluded, was NASA's earlier failure to properly deal with an ongoing problem: heat shield debris hits from foam insulation coming off the external tank during ascent."

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Featured Image Credit: NASA/Getty Images /Getty Images/Handout