The Space Shuttle Columbia was just 16 minutes from landing at Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 1, 2003, when disaster struck.
Friday marks a decade since the nation lost the Space Shuttle Columbia. Seven astronauts perished in the Earth’s atmosphere upon re-entry, and the orbiter disintegrated across the southern United States, its remains strewn across a 200-mile stretch from Texas to Louisiana.
But Columbia’s destruction and the subsequent end of the shuttle program didn’t quash enthusiasm for future astronauts and rocket scientists. When Yahoo News asked space shuttle fans to write appreciations for Columbia this week, we received several stories from readers who were kids in 2003. Propelled by dreams of space travel, they’re now engineers, tinkering with the machines that will carry Americans back into space. In their stories is a consistent theme: Columbia’s destruction didn’t portend the end of the human space flight. It galvanized it.
To look forward, however, first go back 10 years.
Not everyone remembers the details of Columbia's demise. But for those with professional or heartfelt connections to NASA, it’s clear exactly where they were when it broke apart: a predawn street in Sacramento, Calif.; an anonymous roadside truck stop near Nashville, Tenn.; a college physics class in Cameroon; a living room in Zanesville, Ohio. Below, stories from NASA employees, scientists and writers who follow the industry show how Feb. 1, 2003, altered their lives.
Gray Fox updates the Columbia investigation fault tree in 2003. (Courtesy of Jan Railsback)
Gray Fox recalls that Saturday distinctly. The former NASA engineer says he knew something was wrong when Mission Control couldn’t re-establish communications with the orbiter after a 16-minute signal loss and long-range cameras at the landing site hadn’t spotted Columbia.
“I felt the blood rush to my face,” Fox remembers in a first-person account for Yahoo News. “I knew something catastrophic had happened.”
Fox immediately drove to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to join his team. That day and for six months after, work blended with life: 12-hour days were standard and weekends became weekdays. Fox’s assignment was to craft a fault tree analysis that would narrow down what caused the accident and eliminate all other possibilities.
Fox in the cockpit of a space shuttle simulator in 1986. ( Courtesy of Jan Railsback)
“Months later,” Fox says, “our team flew to the Kennedy Space Center where the analysts laid the debris in a grid pattern. The view was sobering and somber. We quietly investigated what we came to see and left.”
NASA’s Columbia Accident Investigation Board announced on Aug. 26, 2003, the official cause: foam insulation from the external fuel tank struck the shuttle’s left wing on liftoff, damaging shielding panels that allowed hot gasses to compromise the orbiter on re-entry.
Fox is now semi-retired after working for NASA since 1986. He has a plaque that signifies his role in the accident investigation. He knows Columbia didn’t beckon the end to human exploration of space.
“The loss of Columbia only enhanced the resolve of the agency to fly humans into space safely,” Fox says. “I believe we should continue human space flight because we eventually will have to leave Earth to survive as a species. However, in these early efforts, the margins to failure are narrow.”
Some kids gaze heavenward and dream of a spaceship-saturated sky, and careers in rocket launches and interplanetary journeys. Count Kevin Schillo among them. Today, he’s a rocket scientist.
Schillo, a freshman at a Tampa, Fla., high school in 2003, remembers that despite the Columbia disaster, he was destined for a future in aerospace. In college and graduate school, he built rockets and satellites for NASA and the Air Force. He’s now researching fusion propulsion at the University of Alabama in hopes it will open the solar system to routine manned exploration.
“I desire nothing more than to contribute to mankind's technological capabilities so that our civilization may expand beyond the confines of Earth,” Schillo writes. “The universe is vast, and there is much left for humanity to discover.”
It’s too easy to draw inspiration from NASA’s successes, like Apollo, says Schillo. It’s similarly facile to point to Columbia as a death knell for human space travel and a signal that America lost its vision and appetite.
He writes: “[T]he greatest of human endeavors necessitates the greatest risks, which is why space travel has never and will never be a completely safe undertaking. So rather than viewing disasters like Columbia as a reason to abandon our goals in space, they should instead make it all the more pertinent that we continue humanity's exploration of the cosmos in even bolder ventures. For what better way is there to honor the memories of fallen astronauts than by building upon their accomplishments?”
Carolyn Collins Petersen watches the rollover of the Space Shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center the day after the final launch of Endeavor. (Courtesy of Carolyn Collins Petersen)
Carolyn Collins Petersen has witnessed three major spacecraft disasters in her life: As a child she remembers the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts on Jan. 27, 1967. Then Challenger exploded 73 seconds into flight on Jan. 28, 1986.
After Challenger, Petersen says she recalls the “terribly prescient words” of Virgil Grissom, who perished in the Apollo fire: "If we die, we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life."
Ten years ago, Petersen watched coverage of the Columbia tragedy on a sofa in her Massachusetts home.
“It seemed almost unreal that another space flight tragedy was upon us with its attendant loss of life,” she writes. “But, as I sat on the sofa watching the coverage of the Columbia tragedy, I thought once again of Grissom's words. They reminded me that risk is part of life. The 17 astronauts who have died to bring space exploration alive for the rest of us knew that it is only through risk that we make progress."
Now 59, Petersen’s life is dedicated to space. NASA supported her through graduate school, and she now writes about space and produces astronomy videos. She writes: “I have spent most of my life also reaching for the stars. Each night I step outside and look up at the sky from my home in Colorado, and I feel proud that NASA has not let these losses limit its vision.”
In Douala, Cameroon, where Hubert Foy taught college physics, news of Columbia’s loss flooded radio and TV reports. The city was transfixed, he says.
“The news consumed public imagination, and spasms of agony rippled through me,” Foy writes.
Like others, though, the tragedy didn’t deter him.
“I wanted to be part of a new generation of brave explorers who could carry the flame of discovery to low Earth orbit, the moon, Mars and beyond,” he says.
From Cameroon, Foy’s passion for space science led him to the Planetary Systems Lab at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center as a research scholar. Now in California, he’s a strategic nuclear weapons analyst and focuses on space and nuclear security issues in Africa and the Middle East.
“Each anniversary should remind us that space exploration and discovery is not a choice but a desire written in the human heart,” Foy says. “My eyes always looked to the stars.”
Space enthusiast Brendan Byrne and his father visited the Kennedy Space Center when he attended space camp. He watched launches from his home in Fort Lauderdale—about 175 miles away—and caught the Columbia’s last launch: “From my standpoint, everything looked good. It looked like every other spaceflight—routine.” He says Colombia altered his vision of the space program; it was no longer easy or routine, and now he saw the obstacles, challenges and complacency. But again, there’s the notion of resolve, seen too in teenagers: “We always came back. I knew we would surmount this challenge. I knew we could, and it made me hopeful. We would fly again.” Read more of Byrne's story. (Courtesy of Brendan Byrne)
R.L. Taylor mourns that a robot beat man to Mars.
“Maybe I'm a romantic, but I remember my visions of mankind's first steps into deep space and they were human feet, not the wheels of a robot,” the space aficionado writes.
In that respect, his vision differs from the others we fielded. Space flight’s future belongs to machines, not man, and Columbia cemented that: “Today, manned space exploration is a de facto non-starter. The risks deemed far too great and the costs much too high to design and plan manned space missions, we have ceded the space race to the robots.”
Taylor learned of Columbia’s loss alongside strangers at a truck stop near Nashville. A decade later, he’s convinced robots would make similar scenes much less likely.
“Robots are much less expensive to send into space than people, they don't require food or life support, and they leave no grieving families when they are destroyed or lost,” he says. “No congressional investigations are demanded, and the planet goes on without many even knowing when an unmanned probe is lost.”
Engineers don’t point fingers. They look for causes.
That distinction was important during the Columbia investigation, Joseph Mattingly says. The 20-year-old is an aerospace engineering student at Georgia Tech, with sights on a career in the manned space industry.
“It is infinitely easier to explain why the world functions as it does rather than to pinpoint a person or group of people responsible for tragedy,” he writes. “To think that a few back-of-the-envelope calculations should have raised red flags, and to know that a few computations could have saved seven lives is disheartening, but in this disaster, we have learned the steep price we have paid to explore.”
Mattingly has no doubt Columbia’s crew died pursuing mankind’s calling: “The astronauts stepped up to the calling, not because it was a safe job, but because it promised to push forward our horizons. Danger was a real thing, but not an impedance. The Columbia crew would have perished not in fear, but in pursuit of exploration. Ad astra per aspera.” Translated: Through hardship to the stars.
The Columbia lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 16, 2003. (Karl Ronstrom/Reuters)
There is a particular poetry to space quests, borrowed from the romance of early exploration.
When hearing of Columbia’s loss, Houston resident and space writer Mark Whittington, 56, recalled Challenger and the “oh God, not again!” feeling. He’s reminded of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Song of the Dead,” specifically the cold comfort of the “price of admiralty,” when pondering the shared sacrifice of venturing into the unknown:
We have fed our sea for a thousand years
And she calls us, still unfed,
Though there's never a wave of all her waves
But marks our English dead:
We have strawed our best to the weed's unrest,
To the shark and the sheering gull.
If blood be the price of admiralty,
Lord God, we ha' paid in full!
“I know that some, like the crew of Columbia, have already paid it,” he writes. “Many more will pay that price in time, as human explorers once again voyage beyond low Earth orbit, back to the moon, and on across the solar system and ultimately the stars. That high road will be paved, in part, in blood and tears.”
Read more tributes to Columbia:
The crew of Space Shuttle Columbia: Seated in front are astronauts Rick D. Husband, left, mission commander; Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; and William C. McCool, pilot. Standing are, left to right, astronauts David M. Brown, Laurel B. Clark, and Michael P. Anderson, all mission specialists; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist representing the Israeli Space Agency. (NASA)