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At 08:59 Eastern Standard Time, on February 1st, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated in mid-air, 209,000 feet over Texas. The incident was caused by failure of protective tiles designed to deflect the intense heat of re-entry. These tiles had been damaged during launch, and consequently hot gases were able to destroy the left wing of the shuttle during the landing attempt, which led to its destabilization and break-up. All 7 crew members on board were killed.

How did it happen?

Shortly after the Columbia was launched on shuttle mission STS-107, a large piece of insulating foam weighing 0.54 kg separated from one of its rocket fuel tanks and struck the left wing of the vessel while traveling 240 meters per second. The resulting 6 to 10 inch hole was not noticed at the time, but came to the fore during a video review of the launch the next day. Footage was not of a high enough quality to indicate the exact position or nature of the hole. NASA, feeling that there was little that could be done to mitigate the situation in any case, declined to investigate the damage any further while the shuttle was in orbit, despite repeated requests by various engineers to do so. Convinced that the situation was safe, Columbia was cleared to land as usual by the agency, upon which the left wing disintegrated as a direct result of the damage caused by the foam impact. The rest of the shuttle followed suit.

Aftermath

The debris from Columbia’s disintegration was strewn across a wide geographical area. As there was no escape mechanism for shuttle occupants, no survivors were found out of the 7 crew members. No one on the ground was injured. An investigation that would shut down shuttle operations for 2 years began immediately. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board was formed to look into not only the details of the disaster itself, but also the management of the incident by NASA.

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