On the morning of Saturday, 1 February 2003 space shuttle Columbia broke apart during reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, and all seven crew members were killed. The first external piece of evidence that something had gone wrong was a hole in the left wing near the leading edge.

A local witness reported hearing a change in the engine noise after seeing an object detached from the shuttle, but Columbia continued to fly normally for nearly a minute.

One of the sensors detected wind shear—a sudden change in wind speed or direction—at 230,000 ft (70 km). Three other sensors did not detect it. The last sensor reading occurred at 177,000 ft (54 km), and no further readings were obtained. During the next minute or so, a series of other failures occurred—thirteen in all.

The first officer and mission commander said, “uh-oh,” followed by “ah!” Fourteen seconds later, ground controllers received a garbled transmission from Columbia that lasted six seconds. The space shuttle then broke apart over Texas.

Space Shuttle Columbia History

The space shuttle Columbia (Orbiter Vehicle Designation: OV-102) was the first space-rated orbiter in NASA’s space shuttle fleet. It launched for the first time on mission STS-1 on April 12, 1981, the first flight of the Space Shuttle program.

Columbia later completed 27 missions before disintegrating during re-entry near the end of mission STS-107 on February 1, 2003, resulting in the death of all seven crew members. The accident triggered a 7-month investigation that concluded the foam insulation and structure of the external tank had played a significant role in the destruction of the spacecraft.

The space shuttle Columbia started its space travels with this first space flight on April 12, 1981. It completed 27 space flights and carried out a total of 3 space missions.

On February 1, 2003, Columbia detached from the tank during re-entry to Earth at about 400,000 feet (120 km) altitude. The damage to the space shuttle Columbia first began when it detached from its tank which was loaded with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The space shuttle Columbia was destroyed because the external tank changed the aerodynamics of the space shuttle Columbia. This caused it to have more turbulence which led to its disintegration in space on February 1, 2003, during its 27 space flight mission.

The space shuttle orbiter vehicle was composed of 3 main parts: the reusable space shuttle orbiter itself, the expendable external tank (ET) containing liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, and two reusable solid rocket boosters (SRBs). The space shuttle orbiter and ET is assembled vertically in an assembly plant. It was then delivered by a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft to Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility for mating with SRBs and ET in the Vehicle Assembly Building.

After this space shuttle Columbia was launched, it completed 27 space flights in its space career. The space shuttles in NASA’s space shuttle fleet were retired in 2011 due to high operating cost and lower demand following the completion of the International Space Station.

Abort Modes

There were four possible space shuttle abort modes to get a spaceflight crew safely back to Earth in the event of a major malfunction during launch or ascent: “Return To Launch Site” (RTLS), “Transoceanic Abort Landing” (TAL), “Abort To Orbit” (ATO), and “Abort Once Around” (AOA).

Return to Launch Site: RTLS returned the space shuttle to the launch site (Kennedy Space Center, Florida).

Transoceanic Abort Landing: TAL was an abort mode that culminated in a landing at either Zaragoza Air Base or Moron Air Base in Spain.

Abort to Orbit: ATO was an abort mode that allowed for at least a 180-degree roll and it culminated in a low Earth orbit (LEO). This mode was never used although the launch trajectory was similar to what was used for the first four space shuttle missions.

AOA was the first abort mode successfully tested, on mission STS-51-F. During this flight, one of the hydraulic systems failed to operate correctly which prevented the space shuttle’s elevons from functioning correctly. The space shuttle Challenger made it back to Earth safe and sound using the Abort Once Around mode.

The space shuttle return to the launch site, or RTLS abort mode was designed to lift the space shuttle off the pad during an emergency. If one or more engines shut down early, the space shuttle could still land safely on its two-wing-mounted winged aeroshells. This would be an emergency case of space shuttle abort, where the space shuttle could not continue into space.

RTLS was designed to save the vehicle if one or more engines shut down early. The space shuttle had two solid rocket boosters attached to either side of it that provided most of the thrust during launch (lift off). If necessary, the space shuttle could use the main space shuttle engines to lift off downrange over the Atlantic Ocean. Then, the space shuttle’s three main engines would fire to get enough thrust to carry the space shuttle back in a curve towards Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

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