The cultural roots of the Columbia disaster can be traced back to years of management drift at NASA, but the technical cause reaches back just days, to the launch of STS-107 on January 16, 2003. This timeline highlights incidents throughout the launch, mission, and reentry of Columbia’s final flight.

Launch

January 16, 2003 10:39 a.m. Eastern Standard Time: Columbia launches from Kennedy Space Center

Launch + 57 seconds Columbia experiences rapid change in out of plane wind shear of -37.7 ft/s over 1200 ft altitude initiating low frequency oscillation from sloshing oxygen in External Tank

Launch + 60 seconds sideslip beta angle reached -1.75 degrees increasing loads on External Tank forward attach bipod, within design limits

Launch + 81.7 seconds: One large piece (21-27 inches by 12-18 inches) and at least two smaller pieces of insulating foam breaks off where the External Tank attaches to the Orbiter left bipod ramp area

Launch + 81.9 seconds: Large piece of broken foam strikes leading edge of Columbia’s left wing with impact velocity of 625-849 ft/s (416-573 mi/hr)

11:39 a.m. EST Columbia began post-insertion timeline, all other launch events having proceeded normally.

Mission

STS-107’s mission was one of research and education. The crew managed several biological and physiological experiments, growing bacteria, moss, moths, and fish. The captured the first ever photographs of upper atmospheric sprites and elves and monitored major dust storm events. In a single day, they engaged in eleven education events with students across the US.

The mission was plagued with the usual challenges, including equipment and electrical problems that saw the habitat temperature spike at 28°C one day and ruined bacterial cultures towards the end of the mission.

Flight Day 2, Friday, January 17: An unobserved object possibly related to the earlier debris strike drifted away from the Orbiter and reentered the atmosphere.

Flight Day 8, Thursday, January 23: Mission Control emailed Husband and McCool that post-launch photo analysis showed foam from the External Tank had struck the Orbiter’s left wing during ascent along with a video of the debris strike and assessment that there was “no concern for RCC or tile damage” because the phenomenon had been seen before and “absolutely no concern for entry.” This communication was shared with the remainder of the crew.

Flight Day 13, Tuesday, January 28:  The crew held a moment of silence to honor Apollo 1 and Challenger.

Reentry

February 1, 2003 8:15:30 a.m. EST executed deorbit burn

8:44:09 a.m. EST:  Entry Interface (EI) occurred at 400,000 ft over Pacific Ocean

EI + 55 seconds: ground video shows material shedding from the orbiter

EI + 279 seconds: left wing leading edge sensor recorded higher strain than previous reentries on Modular Auxiliary Data System but not reported to ground or crew

EI + 577 seconds: ground observers saw sudden brightening of Orbiter streak in five distinct events

EI + 613 seconds: first anomalies in telemetry data and first indication to Mission Control off abnormal reentry.

EI + 614 seconds: ground observers saw a bright flash in the Orbiter’s passage

EI + 727 seconds: Mission Control observed increase in left wheel well hydraulic line temperatures

EI + 790 seconds: two left main gear outboard tire pressure sensors begin trending upward, then drop off-scale

EI + 834 seconds: sharp change in rolling of the orbiter, additional debris

EI + 917 seconds: increase in positive roll and negative yaw

EI + 923 seconds: broken response from Husband was the last crew communication and last telemetry signal received by Mission Control.

EI + 927 seconds: third RCS jet begins firing continuously

EI + 928 seconds: hot plasma burned through all four hydraulic lines in the area of the left wheel well. Beginning of orbiter pitchup

EI + 969 seconds: orbiter aero-thermal breakup, disintegration seen from the ground

EI + 1004 seconds: separation of crew module, pressurized compartment, and outer forebody

EI + 1021 seconds: total destruction of crew module and forebody complete

Below, watch the final minutes of STS-107 through the eyes and instruments of Mission Control. This video includes audio from the Mission Control loop that was not broadcast on NASATV.

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About the author

Merryl Azriel

Merryl Azriel

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Having wandered into professional writing and editing after a decade in engineering, science, and management, Merryl now enjoys reintegrating the dichotomy by bringing space technology and policy within reach of an interested public. After three years as Space Safety Magazine’s Managing Editor, Merryl semi-retired to Visiting Contributor and manager of the campaign to bring the International Space Station collaboration to the attention of the Nobel Peace Prize committee. She keeps her pencil sharp as Proposal Manager for U.S. government contractor CSRA.