The last solo shuttle earth orbit mission ended in tragedy when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry at an altitude of 63.15 km and a speed of Mach 18. Launch delayed from May 23, June 27, July 11 and 19, November 29, 2002.
Columbia was the oldest shuttle in the fleet. As the heaviest, it was never modified for International Space Station on assembly missions. Instead it was extensively refurbished during a 17-month stay in Boeing's factory in California and primarily destined for solo shuttle earth orbit missions to low inclination orbits (Spacelab and Spacehab; Hubble Space Telescope repair and upgrade). The first flight after the refurbishment was the Hubble repair mission STS-109 in March 2002.
STS-107 was a mission specifically mandated by the US Congress. NASA had expected to fly the experiments aboard on the International Space Station, but certain members of Congress pushed to test microgravity experiments with commercial potential. These could not have been done on the Station for some time due to ISS construction work and crew limitations. STS-107 was originally to have been launched in 2001. However it had lower priority than the Hubble mission and was finally scheduled for July 2002 as the second Columbia flight after its refurbishment. A further delay of seven months resulted from the reshuffling of missions after the shuttle fleet was grounded for a time in 2002 due to cracks in main engine fuel-liners. Following resolution of that problem, ISS assembly and resupply missions (STS-110, -111, -112, -113) had priority.
Finally the turn of the STS-107 crew came. What appeared to be a nearly flawless mission was launched on-schedule in perfect weather at both the launch site and the contingency abort landing sites. A concern during lift-off was the observation that a chunk of insulation had broken off the external tank during ascent and may have struck the bottom of the left wing of the shuttle. A NASA assessment concluded that no significant damage was done. No request was made of the US intelligence services for the underbelly of the shuttle to be examined by reconnaissance satellite or ground-based cameras. In any case, there were no means on board for examination or repair of any damage to the tiles of the heat shield.
The mission continued without major problem with the series of experiments in the Double Spacehab module being conducted 24 hours a day by two shifts (Red Team and Blue Team). Closeout and preparation for landing went smoothly as well. Again weather was flawless over the south-eastern United States and there was no delay in landing (as on many other shuttle missions).
The re-entry OMS burn was nominal. However nearly as soon as Columbia began braking in the earth's atmosphere and heating of its belly began, problems began cropping up. A cascading series of drop-outs of sensors in the left elevon, wing, and then left wheel-well and tires were detected over a period of five minutes. At 14:53 GMT ground controllers noted the loss of data from four temperature sensors on the inboard and outboard hydraulic systems on the left side of the spacecraft. Such drop-outs had been noted on earlier missions, usually due to minor failures of avionics handling the sensor inputs. The shuttle was functioning normally otherwise and the crew was not notified. Three minutes later other sensors detected a rise in temperature and pressure in the tires on the shuttle's left-side landing gear. This was certainly a cause for concern, as it would indicate a loss of heat shield integrity and heating of the shuttle's internal aluminium structure. It also would have set off an alarm in Columbia's cockpit.
At 14:58 GMT data was lost from three temperature sensors embedded in the shuttle's left wing. At 14:59 Columbia was at an altitude of 63.15 km and a speed of Mach 18.3. Houston mission control radioed "Columbia, Houston. We see your tire pressure messages and we did not copy your last." Flight Commander Husband replied, "Roger, uh ..." and transmission ceased. Amateurs watching and filming the re-entry over Texas and Louisiana at that moment saw one major chunk being shed from the shuttle. Seconds later the main body disintegrated into five or more pieces. Thousands of pieces of the Columbia survived re-entry and impacted a wide area of east Texas and Louisiana.
NASA followed procedures established for such a contingency. All data were secured, all production and processing of shuttle flight components was stopped, the shuttle fleet was grounded, and an independent investigation commission was named. Congress, true to form, announced its own investigation. Congress, of course, did not investigate itself -- which lobbyists, aides, and Congressman pressured NASA to conduct the solo mission. NASA believed the experiments aboard STS-107 would have been best performed aboard the ISS.
The ISS provided a 'space infrastructure' which would have allowed several ways to handle a situation if damage to the tiles was suspected. Columbia could have been flown in an orbit that allowed it to rendezvous with the ISS in an emergency (albeit with reduced payload). The ISS crew could have inspected the shuttle for damage. If damage had been seen, the shuttle could have rendezvoused (although not docked) with the station and the crew could have transferred to the station to wait for a repair or rescue mission.
The grounding of the shuttle fleet left the three-person crew aboard the ISS without the planned ride home. However they had a Soyuz lifeboat docked to the station and sufficient consumables to wait until June for a relief mission. This arrived in May aboard Soyuz TMA-2, which brought up the first of a series of two-man skeleton crews that would keep the ISS operating over the next two years until shuttle flights and station assembly resumed in July 2005.
The ISS was not cancelled, but the disaster should give fresh impetus to NASA's project to develop a much smaller manned Orbital Space Plane as a lifeboat and eventual shuttle replacement. This finally began full-scale development at the end of 2006 as the Orion space capsule, which was to provide American human access to space after the completion of station assembly and the retirement of the shuttle in 2010.
NASA Official Mission Summary
Mission: Migrogravity Research Mission/SPACEHAB
Space Shuttle: Columbia
Launch Pad: 39A
Launched: January 16, 2003, 10:39 a.m. EST
Crew Members: Commander Rick Husband, Pilot Willie McCool, Payload Commander Michael Anderson, Mission Specialists Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon.
Jan. 16, 2003, at 10:39 a.m. EST, Columbia lifted off on time on the first shuttle mission of the year. It carried seven crew members, including the first Israeli astronaut, on a marathon international scientific research flight.
KSC landing was planned for Feb. 1 after a 16-day mission, but Columbia and crew were lost during reentry over East Texas at about 9 a.m. EST, 16 minutes prior to the scheduled touchdown at KSC. A seven-month investigation followed, including a four month search across Texas to recover debris. The search was headquartered at Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, La. Nearly 85,000 pieces of orbiter debris were shipped to KSC and housed in the Columbia Debris Hangar near the Shuttle Landing Facility. The KSC debris reconstruction team identified pieces as to location on the orbiter, and determined damaged areas. About 38 percent of the orbiter Columbia was eventually recovered.
As a research mission, the crew was kept busy 24 hours a day performing various chores involved with science experiments.
Experiments in the SPACEHAB RDM included nine commercial payloads involving 21separate investigations, four payloads for the European Space Agency with 14 investigations, one payload/investigation for ISS Risk Mitigation and 18 payloads supporting 23 investigations for NASA's Office of Biological and Physical Research (OBPR).
In the physical sciences, three studies inside a large, rugged chamber examined the physics of combustion, soot production and fire quenching processes in microgravity. These experiments provided new insights into combustion and fire suppression that cannot be gained on Earth.
An experiment that compressed granular materials in the absence of gravity furthered our understanding of construction techniques. This information can help engineers provide stronger foundations for structures in areas where earthquakes, floods and landslides are common.
Another experiment evaluated the formation of zeolite crystals, which can speed the chemical reactions that are the basis for chemical processes used in refining, biomedical and other areas. Yet another experiment used pressurized liquid xenon to mimic the behaviors of more complex fluids such as blood flowing through capillaries.
In the area of biological applications, two separate OBPR experiments allowed different types of cell cultures to grow together in weightlessness to elevate their development of enhanced genetic characteristics -- one use was to combat prostate cancer, the other to improve crop yield. Another experiment evaluated the commercial usefulness of plant products grown in space.
A facility for forming protein crystals more purely and with fewer flaws than is possible on Earth may lead to a drug designed for specific diseases with fewer side effects.
A commercially sponsored facility housed two experiments to grow protein crystals to study possible therapies against the factors that cause cancers to spread and bone cancer to inflict intense pain on its sufferers.
A third experiment looked at developing a new technique of encapsulating anti-cancer drugs to improve their efficiency.
Other studies focused on changes, due to space flight, in the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems; in the systems which sense and respond to gravity; and in the capability of organisms to respond to stress and maintain normal function.
NASA also tested a new technology to recycle water prior to installing a device to recycle water permanently aboard the International Space Station.
The European Space Agency (ESA), through a contract with SPACEHAB, flew an important payload focused on astronaut health, biological function and basic physical phenomena in space. These experiments addressed different aspects of many of the same phenomena that NASA is interested in, providing a more thorough description of the effects of space flight, often in the same subjects or specimens.
ESA performed seven in-flight experiments, and one ground-based, on the cardiopulmonary changes that occur in astronauts.
Additional ESA biological investigations examined bone formation and maintenance; immune system functioning; connective tissue growth and repair; and bacterial and yeast cell responses to the stresses of space flight.
A special facility grew large, well-ordered protein and virus crystals that were expected to lead to improved drug designs. Another studied the physical characteristics of bubbles and droplets in the absence of the effects of Earth's gravity.
SPACEHAB was also making it possible for universities, companies and other government agencies to do important research in space without having to provide their own spacecraft.
The Canadian Space Agency sponsored three bone-growth experiments, and was collaborating with ESA on two others.
The German Space Agency measured the development of the gravity-sensing organs of fish in the absence of gravity.
A university was growing ultra-pure protein crystals for drug research. And another university was testing a navigation system for future satellites.
The U.S. Air Force was conducting a communications experiment. Students from six schools in Australia, China, Israel, Japan, Liechtenstein and the United States were probing the effects of space flight on spiders, silkworms, inorganic crystals, fish, bees and ants, respectively.
There were also experiments in Columbia's payload bay, including three attached to the top of the RDM: the Combined Two-Phase Loop Experiment (COM2PLEX), Miniature Satellite Threat Reporting System (MSTRS) and Star Navigation (STARNAV).
There were six payloads/experiments on the Hitchhiker pallet -- the Fast Reaction Experiments Enabling Science, Technology, Applications and Research (FREESTAR), which was mounted on a bridge-like structure spanning the width of the payload bay. These six investigations looked outward to the Sun, downward at Earth's atmosphere and inward into the physics of fluid phenomena, as well as tested technology for space communications.
FREESTAR held the Critical Viscosity of Xenon- 2 (CVX-2), Low Power Transceiver (LPT), Mediterranean Israeli Dust Experiment (MEIDEX), Space Experiment Module (SEM- 14), Solar Constant Experiment-3 (SOLCON-3) and Shuttle Ozone Limb Sounding Experiment (SOLSE-2). The SEM was made up of 11 separate student experiments from schools across the U.S. and was the 14th flight of a SEM on the space shuttle.
Additional secondary payloads were the Shuttle Ionospheric Modification with Pulsed Local Exhaust Experiment (SIMPLEX) and Ram Burn Observation (RAMBO). During the debris recovery activities, some of the Columbia experiments were found. Scientists have indicated valuable science will still be produced. Much of the scientific data was transmitted to experimenters on the ground during the flight.
First Launch: 2003.01.16.
Last Launch: 2003.02.01.
Duration: 15.94 days.