September 22, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Nine years ago today, the Space Shuttle Columbia burst into flames as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere after 16 days in orbit. All seven crew members lost their lives, and the debris from the craft was scattered across hundreds of miles. NASA diligently collected all the fragments that were found, and they are now stored at the Kennedy Space Center. This collection has only been opened to the media once; a small selection of images is available to view here.

The Columbia was thought to have failed due to a small hole on one of its wings, caused during take-off when a small piece of insulating foam peeled off the shuttle’s body and struck its wing. Because of this, the hot gases experienced during re-entry penetrated the interior of the wing and caused the craft to break apart from the inside.

Unfortunately this wasn’t an isolated incident – several other crafts have met a similar fate. One being the Space Shuttle Challenger, which broke up only 2 minutes into its mission as a faulty seal on one of the rocket boosters came loose and forced the craft into an attitude that it couldn’t handle. The Challenger later had a replacement orbiter built, but the Columbia did not.

There have been various touching tributes to the crew of the Columbia since the accident. One of the most unexpected is a song by Deep Purple named “Contact Lost” – one of the astronauts on board the Columbia, Kalpana Chawla, was a huge Deep Purple fan, and two of the three Deep Purple CDs she took into space with her were Deep Purple albums (Machine Heads, and Purpendicular, for any fans out there) – there is a touching tribute on this live version of the song.

The Columbia tragedy had a huge impact on the American space programme. The other three orbiters were grounded while NASA raced to improve their crafts and design safer external tanks and heat shields, and it wasn’t until mid-2005 that a shuttle, the Discovery, flew again. However, the impact doesn’t end there. This disaster caused the US government to rethink space policy entirely, revising the initial plan of shuttle flights continuing into 2020 to the recent grounding of the shuttles in 2011.

More information on the Shuttles can be read in our ‘Science Behind the Photo’ post here, along with a stunning photograph of the final shuttle landing ever, back in July 2011.