History of Columbia Space Shuttle and Disaster

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About the Columbia Space Shuttle

The Colombia was the first space shuttle to be built under the prestigious Space Transportation System plan of NASA. It was really a dream come true for NASA and the world as a whole. Beginning with its initial designs in the year 1975, it finally arrived at the John Kennedy Space Center in March of 1979 where it took two more years before its maiden flight in the 1981. You may not believe in omens but some unknown force surely forecasted some mishap when two crew members were asphyxiated by a nitrogen leak while the vehicle was being prepared for ground tests.

Historic First Flight

Columbia soared in space on a two day journey and by the time it returned to earth on April 14, 1981; it had gone around the world nearly 37 times. If Jules Verne had written his famous book one century later he would have surely named it “Around the world in eighty hours”, but then it might not have become a bestseller. Jokes apart, the shuttle was a huge success and was repeatedly used in manned space missions.

Time moved on and Colombia completed more than two dozen successful journeys and space travel was becoming a habit with her. But destiny had other plans for her when the vehicle finally went on its 28 mission, something happened which literally shook the whole world.

Disaster on it’s 28th Mission

On the morning of January 16th, 2003, the Columbia space shuttle went as usual into space, this time with 7 astronauts along with her. These astronauts were on a 16 day journey into space for the purpose of carrying out some specific experiments related to space research. Everything went fine and the crew achieved their goals and were waiting happily to return back to Mother Earth on the 1st of February.

The engineers had detected that a piece of debris had stuck the left wing 82 seconds into space and they calcualted its impact as being from a foam piece 1.67 lb in weight and travelling at 775 fps. NASA engineers finally gave the okay for the return dismissing the foam impact as being not an issue.

Everything was going as planned and nobody had any hitch in their minds till the moment of entry into the earth’s atmosphere arrived. 16 days of intense research in space and simply 16 minutes to land at the Kennedy space center, and who would have thought what happened next.

Sensors in the left wing of Colombia started to show some faults in the readings with some critical failures in the brake and tire system. After about 6-7 minutes most of the gauges showed erratic readings and just about one minute after that – nothing but debris was left of what was once one of the most sophisticated pieces of engineering on the whole planet. It was not only the machinery but seven brilliant lives that were lost in a matter of minutes and nobody could do anything.

What Caused the Tragedy

Investigations later on revealed that the reason for this disaster was very elementary, in that a piece of foam had stuck the left wing from the external tank and hence the space shuttle was doomed from the very moment it had left the earth. Old is gold they say and it is not without purpose that our elders gave us the advice – take care of the nail otherwise the battle might be lost for the want of a horse shoe nail. If you are wondering what is the correlation between a piece of foam and a horse shoe nail - well its just a matter of basic principles. If you remember your school days poem a horse had a loose horse shoe which resulted in the army losing the battle because it was ignored.

Similarly the foam piece, which was detected to have stuck the left wing was dismissed by engineers and experts, and later proved to have damaged the external wing surface. This may not be a big thing to worry about on land but when the shuttle returned to the atmosphere at nearly 18 times the speed of sound (Mach 18), extremely high temperature gases made their way through the crack in the wing’s leading edge destroying the internal wing support structure and the wing gave way, perishing the magnificent mission and crew. Read here if you want to see the mathematics of the impact of this small foam piece.