Science & Technology

NASA remembers the hard lessons learned from Columbia shuttle tragedy

Miami, Jan 31 (EFE).- The flaming fragments of the space shuttle Columbia streaking through the sky above Texas on Feb. 1, 2003, are a sad and painful memory for NASA, which 20 years after the accident that killed seven astronauts says that it’s vital to continuously monitor space missions with the focus now on traveling to the Moon and to Mars.

On the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, the STS-107 mission on board the Columbia was just about to land at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center after spending 16 days in orbit but during reentry, and just minutes before the shuttle was due to touch down, mission control lost contact with the spacecraft and crew, commanded by Rick Husband.

Launched into space for the first time in April 1981, the Columbia, which was on its 28th mission, suffered a breach in the heat shield protection system on its left wing that resulted in the disintegration of the shuttle – killing the crew – when it was still 230,000 feet (62 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface over northern Texas.

The subsequent seven-month investigation undertaken by NASA in which some 85,000 pieces of the fragmented shuttle were collected determined that the accident resulted when an isolated piece of the hard foam coating from the external fuel tank broke away during launch and hit the left wing, breaking through the heat shield tiles there, a dangerous development that was not noticed at the time or during the remaining 16 days of the mission.

The inferno-like temperatures generated during reentry into the atmosphere sparked a quickly spreading fire in the spacecraft, causing it to blow apart.

The crew on board the shuttle at the time consisted of Husband, NASA astronauts William McCool, David Brown, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark and Kalpama Chawla, the latter being the first woman of Indian heritage to travel into space, as well as a member of the Israeli Space Agency, Ilan Ramon, the first citizen of his country to go into orbit.

Mike Ciannilli, the manager of NASA’s Apollo, Challenger, Columbia Lessons Learned Program, told EFE that it is absolutely critical to look at our past and ensure ourselves that we learn all the lessons we can from tragedies like the Columbia accident and also determine all the causes that contributed to the loss of the shuttle.

Ciannilli – who manages the program that also deals with the 1967 Apollo 1 launchpad spacecraft fire in which three astronauts died and the 1986 Challenger shuttle launch explosion, which killed seven astronauts – was part of the launch team for Columbia’s last mission, and after the accident he was one of the members of the teams that recovered the remains of the crew and the shuttle.

He said the Columbia accident was one of those things “you never forget, the images you saw and what you heard,” said Ciannilli, who gives conferences all over the world, participates in virtual forums and works with different government agencies, private institutions and academics to try and ensure that space accidents do not happen.

Every time we fly into space there’s always a bit of risk, no different from when you leave your house each morning, said the engineer, who recalled that after the accident, which resulted in a two-year pause in the US shuttle program, 22 other successful flights were carried out before the program was ended.

The last of the 135 flights in NASA’s space shuttle program was that of the Atlantis, which launched on July 8, 2011, from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and returned to Earth on July 21 after delivering supplies to the International Space Station.

The Kennedy Space Center since 2015 has hosted a permanent exhibition titled “Forever Remembered” dedicated to Columbia and Challenger and which includes items from both shuttles, along with certain items that belonged to the astronauts on board both missions.

Just like every January, NASA last week held its annual commemoration for astronauts who died in the course of their duties with a ceremony at the Kennedy Center’s Space Mirror Memorial, a granite monument 42 feet (12 meters) high by 50 ft. (15 m) wide on which the names of the fallen astronauts are inscribed.

“Why do we have a NASA Day of Remembrance? Obviously, it is to honor our fallen comrades on the mirror, those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in our quest to explore. But more importantly, it’s so we do not forget the hard lessons learned from Apollo, Challenger and Columbia,” NASA’s associate administrator, Robert Cabana, said regarding why the US space agency holds the Day of Remembrance.

Kennedy Space Center director Janet Petro emphasized that the Columbia accident, the 20th anniversary of which was remembered with assorted events held at NASA’s various facilities around the country, “for our agency, … is a time that lives here in the present, shaping our culture and forming our decisions, and helping us to forge the way ahead.”

EFE –/bp

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