Anniversary of 2nd shuttle disaster
February 1, 2013 10:47 AM   Subscribe

10 years ago today, the flagship of the Space Shuttle fleet, Columbia, broke apart upon its return to earth.

The disaster occurred after a successful 16 day mission due to a foam strike during the shuttle's launch.

It was the second catastrophic failure of the program, resulting in the destruction of the vehicle and death of its crew. The accident resulted in a revamping of Shuttle launches and missions. Video photo analysis of launches and shuttles in orbit, along with limiting flights to the International Space Station (ISS) and retirement of the program.

The question of whether to tell a crew it is doomed is still up on the air.

The LA Times did a six part series on the accident.

An attempt at reconstructing the final seven minutes.

The Mefi thread about the official report on the disaster.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (42 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I remember that day. I was living in Austin, and spent many moments in traffic during the rest of the month glancing at the depiction of the little shuttle on all the (old style) Texas license plates, feeling like it was wrong to stare.
posted by hanoixan at 10:54 AM on February 1, 2013

Goddamn, I can't believe it's already been ten years. If you'd asked me, I would have said it happened within the last two or three. And then I'd have thought about it a minute, and ventured, okay, maybe five. Five years.

Memory is a funny thing. I obviously thought this was very important.
posted by Malor at 10:56 AM on February 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

My dad had planned to watch the shuttle flying overhead early in the morning. When I finally woke up, he told me he hadn't seen it, which he found odd since NASA was usually pretty accurate about what time the space shuttle or the ISS would be visible. It wasn't until the afternoon that I heard what had happened on the radio and we turned on the TV. My mom initially thought that they were just reporting on the anniversary of the Challenger Disaster.
posted by A Bad Catholic at 11:02 AM on February 1, 2013

Man, that was a rough day. The space program was a big part of my life when I was growing up, so of course I knew all about Challenger, but that explosion happened before I was even born and I figured that all the kinks had been worked out and something like that could never happen again. It was heartbreaking to see it happen again.
posted by invitapriore at 11:04 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

The iconic photograph of debris that ran on most newspapers was taken by a cardiologist who owned a 6 megapixel DSLR. His photograph did “contribute to the strong validation in the potential and power of digital photography for real time news coverage.”
posted by dobi at 11:07 AM on February 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

I remember both shuttle tragedies vividly and where I was for each. In Baltimore when Challenger happened and in Dallas when Columbia broke up. Those 2 (and a few others) are in my "Where were you when...?" moments list. Makes me sad to think about it.

Strange that it has been 10 years
posted by lampshade at 11:09 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I remember this. It was sunny that morning, the birds were singing early for the season and it was so utterly sad. And we grasped at straws talking about it here.
posted by y2karl at 11:09 AM on February 1, 2013

I was driving in the old F-150, which ran loud, and I heard the NPR announcer say that the shuttle was running a few minutes late. I turned up the radio, because I thought I had missed something, some explanation for the delay. But there was worry in his voice...and then there was driving and crying. Damn, damn, damn.
posted by MonkeyToes at 11:10 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just this last weekend I found a Columbia, STS-1 Young and Crippen mission patch at a flea market for a $1. I remember being sheaperded into the school library with my entire elementary school to watch Columbia take off for the first time. I took pictures with my 110 camera. I wish I could find those photos.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 11:10 AM on February 1, 2013

I'm not going to make a "10 Years, Man" gag about this tragedy but that is the voice going off in my head. Time does fly. Aside the personal tragedy of the people involved, the thing that stood out for me was implicitly understanding that that one event signalled the beginning of the end for the shuttle program. For those of us who weren't around for the Apollo missions and the moon landing, the space shuttle was a huge icon of our time.
posted by MuffinMan at 11:11 AM on February 1, 2013

Along with the families of the lost astronauts, I often think of the NASA employees who knew or suspected that the Columbia astronauts were not coming home that day, and were prevented from doing anything about it.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:16 AM on February 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

I was at a laundromat which had just put in TV. Watched all of it. :(. It's hard to believe its that long ago.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:19 AM on February 1, 2013

For those of us who weren't around for the Apollo missions and the moon landing, the space shuttle was a huge icon of our time.

Yeah. My grandfather maintains an abiding obsession with everything NASA does and, while it was still relevant, he would get 9x12 headshots of any astronaut that he could and then mail it to them with a request for their signature, to which most of them happily obliged. Most of the people in his big binder of memorabilia were Apollo pilots, and there was a piece of foil from one of the lunar landers in there, and of course when they lived in Houston there was the huge Saturn V laid out at the the Johnson Space Center, and so being surrounded by all that stuff it felt good to be able to point to the space shuttle and say, hey, I've got one too, even if it wasn't quite as glorious.
posted by invitapriore at 11:20 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I remember that day, too. I was teaching a Saturday morning math class. I listened to a radio bit about Challenger on my way to class. After our first break, one of my more troublesome students piped up about the space shuttle blowing up - he'd heard it on his car radio while he was out there smoking. I corrected him - "That's not even fucking funny. You must have heard a recording from 1986." He stood his ground, and one of the other students called her husband and got details.

Dang it was hard to teach for the rest of the morning.
posted by notsnot at 11:23 AM on February 1, 2013

This was another one in a series of events that my mom woke me up for. (See also: "The World Trade Center was just hit by a plane!", we had been on the observation deck 28 days earlier.)

It was never a good thing when I was being woken up by my mother at, say, 6am.

Space travel is inherently risky and NASA has done a significant amount of work building around a culture of safety and known knowns, but that was a long journey that cost several people their lives.

It's unfortunate that every NASA space program death was completely avoidable: Apollo 1 had shoddy wiring and an all-oxygen atmosphere, along with a latching system that would foil even an accomplished bank robber. Challenger had Thorton-Miokol engineers begging their managers to report no-go for the flight: they knew the temperatures were out of tolerance for the o-ring, they knew it, and one of them refused to watch the launch because of what he feared. But TM had a culture of squeezing things through and NASA had a culture of pushing for things to "get done".

Finally, Colombia was a known issue: the external tank is filled with liquid hydrogen and oxygen, which causes it to form condensate which freezes. They were concerned about the ice shedding during the VERY VERY shaky launch and striking the heat shield. (The shakiness of the launch cannot be overstated: I was 3 miles away and the wind/sound blew my clothes. It's truly awe-inspiring.) So they covered the tank with insulating foam.

Except that the heat shield is extremely fragile. It's perfectly adept at deflecting extremely high levels of heat energy and redirecting it around the vehicle. But there are seven different types of material and tile configurations, and the tiles change in width depending on the aerodynamic profile of the vehicle during reentry: the stronger tiles are much heavier and weight is at an extreme, extreme premium. Even still, they're susceptible to strikes, so they tried to mitigate the foam issue as much as possible.

They never did fully solve the problem. Instead, they re-worked the foam a bit, continued their initial development of a tile patching kit, and had the shuttle backflip with a laser scanning system to model the entire underbelly surface to determine if there was any damage.

On the last Hubble servicing mission, because they were not going to be able to perform the backflip or rendezvous with ISS in case there was a significant problem, they actually prepared Atlantis with Endeavour on the other pad in case they needed a rescue.
posted by disillusioned at 11:25 AM on February 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

My wife and I were visiting her parents that weekend. We were on the road driving to their house when it happened. What I remembered most about that day was that my mother-in-law had Headline News and CNN on all day, repeating the same stuff endlessly. In 15 minutes on Metafilter I got more information - and more accurate information - than she got in hours of watching the tube. And this was using a dial-up connection from her house. And she STILL wonders why we don't watch the broadcast news every night. Might as well ask me why I don't read the paper.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:29 AM on February 1, 2013

The loss of Columbia was especially bitter considering her science-only mission (the rest of the fleet was committed to ISS construction), and the tremendous caliber of the astronauts and scientists on board.

We were already speaking quietly about retiring the fleet before the Columbia tragedy. She should have ended with a glorious propaganda mission: Retrieving the soon-to-be-retired Hubble space telescope so that both could be displayed at the Smithsonian's National Air & Space museum.

Meanwhile, NASA is ramping up for the lifting-body Dream Chaser LEO vehicle, while the Air Force's X-37B "mini" robot shuttle (previously) continues its mystery missions.
posted by Chinese Jet Pilot at 11:31 AM on February 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

In the Giffords/Kelly book, Mark Kelly talks about being perhaps the first active-duty astronaut to reach the scene, and how he found and waited with the bodies of two of the crew until others arrived. Ugh.

My own memories of the day are that I was embarrassed, if that’s the word, that I hadn’t even known there’d been a shuttle mission going on until the accident. I’ve been a space nut for decades. But I went through a stretch when I wasn’t following as closely.

After my NASASocial event in ’11, where I was fortunate enough to visit the VAB (where Discovery was parked at the time), I learned that parts of the Columbia are still kept somewhere in that massive building.
posted by NorthernLite at 11:36 AM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I remember we were listening to NPR and they said "NASA has reported that the space shuttle is missing." and I went "huh." and then about two seconds later I realized what that meant and I turned on CNN to see a live shot of the debris shooting across the sky. 9/11 was still fresh in people's minds so there was a lot of "COULD THIS BE TERRORISM?" type talk.

Like others, I was sad for the human loss but also worried about the long-term effects on the space program.
posted by bondcliff at 11:42 AM on February 1, 2013

As a counterbalance:

Curiosity lands on Mars in "realtime" from NASA HQ and as described on Metafilter (respective reactions to actual moment touchdown confirmed here and here).
posted by zombieflanders at 11:53 AM on February 1, 2013

This is the thread from the day.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 12:12 PM on February 1, 2013

Wayne Hale, who was in training to become Launch Integration Manager at the time and went on to become Shuttle Program Manager has been writing about his memories of the incident, the causes and the impact. The entire series is fantastic.
posted by IanMorr at 12:13 PM on February 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

I remember that day. I happened to be up and watching the CNN footage linked to above, and I remember thinking, when it became obvious that there where two objects in the sky where there just should have been one, that something had gone horribly wrong. And then you could see it on fire... I spent most of the rest of that day just sitting on the couch, watching in sort of a daze. I had caught the Challenger explosion on live TV also, so it was sort of a double whammy.
posted by ralan at 12:14 PM on February 1, 2013

Oh man, that very first post in the thread linked to by zombieflanders says just about all you need to know about CNN.
posted by bondcliff at 12:18 PM on February 1, 2013

Yeah, that was a bad day. At the time I was in a non-operational position at KSC, but was having coffee at a local B&N when a woman waiting in line burst out with the news. A really bad day.

The most emotional moment for my wife (who also worked out there) and myself was the walkthrough we took in the hanger where they had laid out the debris in order to figure out what happened. It was laid out in the shape of the Orbiter and I still can clearly see the Vertical Stabilizer rising up in the back of the room. There was a path winding through the room blocked off with rope and there were boxes of tissue on stands every so often. We needed them.

The "missing man" formation flew over my office twice this week. It does every year.
posted by jeporter99 at 12:34 PM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Damn. Just damn.
posted by Chutzler at 12:56 PM on February 1, 2013

Buzz Aldrin captured it this morning. He tried to read a poem about astronauts on television. He read these words: "As they passed from us to glory, riding fire in the sky." And tough old Buzz, steely-eyed rocket man and veteran of the moon, began to weep.
posted by konolia at 10:00 PM on February 1, 2003 [+] [!]

I still remember, and get tears in my eyes, remembering that part.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:58 PM on February 1, 2013 [7 favorites]

The best account of the break-up and the investigation I know of remains Columbia's Last Flight by William Langewiesche. Long-form, but a riveting read.
posted by Johnny Assay at 1:08 PM on February 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

I remember vividly when I found out and how. My brother had called me "Dude, the space shuttle just blew up." He knew that I had been a space nerd as a young kid and had followed all the shuttle activity during the 80's.

Just a few weeks later I was in East Texas managing a recovery team. It was astounding. Pieces of it everywhere, all day, everywhere we walked. Most where the size of a quarter. Some were larger. I think I've told the story here before of walking with a farmer on his property and he's asking us how we know it's from the shuttle, when someone in the line yells out. We walk down to the person, in this guys pasture surrounded by cattle and there is a 3 foot long piece of carbon fiber strap with a beryllium clasp on the end. I think that farmer figured it out pretty quick.
posted by Big_B at 1:11 PM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

God I remember that day vivdly. I was in mission control working trajectory software support for landing. "Software support" meant that we sat there in a conference room next to the FCR chatting and following the mission. Because if you were busy on software support, that was a bad thing. So we mostly sat there, a dozen or so of us representing various mission systems. We'd been up all night so we followed the voice loops and the groundtrack up to deorbit burn with the impatience of people who just wanted to chalk up another successful mission and make our way home without falling asleep at the wheel.

We got quiet when we heard the tone on the loops get suddenly quiet and tense. The groundtrack had stopped. The deorbit clock kept ticking. We all stared at the monitor as if surely something was wrong with it. Silently we all passed straight through denial as it dawned on us what a nightmare this was. We were stone-faced and business-like as we started all the contingency recovery processes, mostly retrieving and packaging mission data to help investigators figure out what happened. In retrospect I was damned proud of the professionalism of the people I worked with. We could cry later but right then we all had work to do.

I held it together until I called my wife later to let her know it would be several hours before I would be home. It was maybe three weeks before I could drive by the gates of JSC, passing all those signs, flowers, and teddy bears, without crying. Later my wife told me that our six year old daughter had turned to her that morning and asked "Why didn't daddy fix it?" Geez, ain't that a fucking punch to the gut?

No one person could fix it. It took thousands of smart people to make a single human spaceflight happen. I was, am, proud to be one of them.
posted by cross_impact at 2:01 PM on February 1, 2013 [43 favorites]

The loss of Columbia was especially bitter considering her science-only mission (the rest of the fleet was committed to ISS construction), and the tremendous caliber of the astronauts and scientists on board.

Recall that Christa McAuliffe - a high school social studies teacher - was among the crew killed in the explosion. Her completely unnecessary death was the result of NASA marketing itself to the public and had nothing to do with science.
posted by three blind mice at 2:59 PM on February 1, 2013

Christa McAuliffe was killed on Challenger.
posted by IanMorr at 3:06 PM on February 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

Three blind mice, science programs have no future without public engagement. Part of maintaining a healthy ecosystem for STEM programs involves stoking public interest and engaging as many (younger) minds as you can. NASA's Teacher In Space Project was a bit more than a half-assed attempt to curry public favor.
posted by Chutzler at 3:55 PM on February 1, 2013

And nobody's death on Challenger was necessary.
posted by Chutzler at 3:58 PM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

In 2011, NOVA (on PBS) did a special about the Columbia Disaster, the investigation and the aftermath. Informative but sad as it includes (towards the end) some film that the crew was taping during the re-entry.

I am also old to enough to (just barely) remember the Challenger and what a huge deal that was. These days it seems as if the disasters (man-made and natural) just keep coming and it is becoming harder and harder to hold them all in my heart.
posted by Misty_Knightmare at 4:17 PM on February 1, 2013

I was a college sophomore in 2003, and that morning a group of us in the aerospace student association had made plans to meet up in someone's yard to build airfoil models, and we'd take a break at 10 or so to watch Columbia land. I remember thinking that it would probably be really uneventful and hopefully over soon so that we could get back to cutting up plywood. And we never finished the project because we kept going back inside the house to watch the news, hoping that somehow the shuttle was okay or the crew would have survived.

Five years later, I went to JSC to interview for a Shuttle flight controller job. The hiring manager started by showing me the mission control front room, where after each mission the patch plaque gets tacked up on the walls by the department that flight directors think contributed most to its success. The only shuttle missions whose plaques aren't on the wall are STS-107 and STS-51-L, because those are sitting in a large display case right next to the MCC doors. So every time you walk through those, you are reminded of what is at stake when you go on console.

When I was laid off, I got my manager's copy of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report.
posted by casarkos at 4:54 PM on February 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

When that shuttle blew up it was the most beautiful day where I was not a cloud in the sky cool and no breeze. I was feeling great. And then they broke into the NPR program I was listening to on the radio. Shit. Anyway.

For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,
We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you youths, Western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the foremost,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the past we leave behind,
We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,
Pioneers! O pioneers!
posted by bukvich at 6:35 PM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was working night shifts when the breakup happened, so my memories of that day were mainly of getting online and going, "WTF!"

A while later (not sure if it was a few months or a year), CSPAN was playing some footage of Mission Control that day. You couldn't hear everything that was said, just when they keyed into the system. Most memorable for me was when the order came to "lock the doors" when they realized the reentry ended in disaster. Seeing the looks on everyone's faces, and the Flight Director weeping was incredibly heartbreaking to watch.
posted by weathergal at 6:36 PM on February 1, 2013

Raise ye the stone or cleave the wood to make a path more fair or flat;
Lo, it is black already with the blood some Son of Martha spilled for that!
Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven, not as a witness to any creed,
But simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need.

And the Sons of Mary smile and are blessèd---they know the Angels are on their side.
They know in them is the Grace confessèd, and for them are the Mercies multiplied.
They sit at the feet---they hear the Word---they see how truly the Promise runs.
They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and---the Lord He lays it on Martha's Sons!

We all sleep in peace in comfort because brave men gave their blood for a better world.
posted by bartonlong at 7:01 PM on February 1, 2013

My first visit to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida was around New Year's 2003. Columbia was on the pad (I got a good photograph of it from the LC 39 Observation Gantry) and you couldn't take some of the tours because of tight security (Ilan Ramon was to be the first Israeli in space).

I went to one of the press briefings that they have on site, and during the Q&A asked a question: A lot of attention is paid to the risks involved during the launch of a shuttle, but not as much to the re-entry. How does the re-entry risk compare?

His answer was basically that you had to slow the shuttle from approximately 18,000 miles per hour to around 200 miles per hour at landing. Most of the braking comes via friction from the shuttle body interacting with the atmosphere. Because the shuttle was more airplane than anything else, there was a narrow range of heat and stress that could be absorbed safely. Plus, since it was an unpowered descent, there was only one chance to do it correctly. In essence: never underestimate how much risk is involved, even though they had been successful every time they re-entered.

I have thought of that exchange quite often since then.
posted by 1367 at 7:07 PM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

10 years ago today is also the day I adopted my cat. We gave her the middle name Columbia.
posted by Hey Dean Yeager! at 7:59 PM on February 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

posted by Rabarberofficer at 10:02 AM on February 2, 2013

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