September 24, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

On 1st February 2003, I arrived home from school with my younger brother, just as usual. We turned on the TV and there it was, the news was on every channel. This had happened once before, on 11th September, 2001 and that had changed the whole world in a dramatic way. In hindsight, the repercussions from the Columbia accident were, of course, not nearly as far-reaching as those from the terrorist attacks on the US. Yet, for me, this event still ranks alongside the election of Barack Obama, the death of Michael Jackson, and the 2005 London bombings as one of those occasions where I will always remember exactly where I was when I heard the news. On this day, I sat there for hours, glued to the TV screen, terribly upset at the fate which had befallen these seven astronauts. As a boy – and a teenager if I’m being honest – I had always desperately wanted to become an astronaut. Gripped by the images on the screen, I asked myself if I would choose to go into space, even if I knew for sure that, like the Columbia astronauts, I would never come back.

The Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry when hot gases entered the the shuttle’s wing, rapidly causing the  shuttle to disintegrate. These hot gases were able to enter the shuttle’s wing because of heat-proof tiles which had been damaged during the shuttle’s launch. During the launch, a piece of foam from the main fuel tank, about the size of a briefcase, broke off and struck the underside of the shuttle, damaging the tiles. However, this was no freak accident. NASA designers simply saw it as inevitable that the huge aerodynamic forces generated during launch would always cause chunks of foam to break off from the main tank. This had happened during every mission prior to the final Columbia flight and it still happens at every launch today. Before the Columbia accident,  NASA engineers had simply deemed the risk posed by this foam within the bounds of acceptability. Following the accident, the shuttle programme was suspended for two and a half years, during which time NASA relied solely on the Russian Federal Space Agency to ferry both astronauts and supplies to and from the International Space Station.

And, the solution they came up with after all this time…? A repair kit. Yes, that’s right, astronauts now go into space with a repair kit. Whilst in space, astronauts now go for a space walk armed with a camera to examine the extent of the damage caused by the foam breaking off the fuel tank during take-off. The footage recorded by the astronauts is sent back to Earth and is carefully scrutinised. Should the damage to the shuttle’s heat-proof tiles be deemed severe, the astronauts are simply required to ‘patch up’ the damage using the supplied repair kit.

Ultimately, this accident spelt the end for the shuttle programme; a programme which has explored new horizons and inflamed the imaginations of people like myself for almost 30 years. Okay, it may never have been as glamorous as the huge Saturn V rockets which took men to the moon and it may have had something of an image problem in it’s later years. Nevertheless, it is testament to this programme’s ability to inspire that the answer to the question I pondered whilst watching the footage of the Columbia disaster was, and today still is, an emphatic yes.


The Shuttle Discovery is currently in space, docked with the International Space Station, and is set to return to Earth for the final time next Tuesday.

The final shuttle flight is due to launch on 28th June this year.

This was the poster I had on the back of my bedroom door when I was a boy. The poster filled the entire back of the door, so I had to cut a hole for the door handle to pop through. It was a mess.

This is the final blog post in this series.