Six years ago today, on February 1st, the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up high over Texas while coming back to Earth. The problem started shortly after launch when a piece of insulating foam broke off he external tank and damaged the thermal protection on the left wing. During reentry, the failure of the thermal protection system led to the destruction of Columbia.
After the accident, many people asked my how it could be so easily damaged. When I was teaching, NASA had a program where you could get Shuttle tiles for classroom use. I have a thermal tile from the shuttle. It is very light and brittle. Handling the tile you can tell how easy it is to damage the thermal protection system.
I was living in Racine at the time. Laurel Clark went to Horlick High in Racine. I remember driving by Horlick about 6:00pm that night and seeing all the major network news trucks parked outside. Racine honored her with the Laurel Clark Fountain (which I sometimes ran through in the middle of warm summer runs). I bought one of the special Christmas ornaments produced by the Racine Kiwanis Club that honored the Columbia astronauts.
Columbia’s last mission was a pure science mission. It did not visit the International Space Station (and was in a very different orbit without enough fuel to reach the ISS even if they realized the damage in time). They did recover some data from the experiments, including data from a severely damged hard drive on the flow of xenon in microgravity.
There have been several changes to the shuttle program since the accident, especially in looking for damage to the orbiter before it returns to Earth. The accident almost forced the cancellation of the final Hubble servicing mission, but NASA has decided to proceed with a backup rescue shuttle ready to go.
I have felt the Columbia has gotten short shrift for some reason. It does not resonate the way the Challenger accident does with the general public. Perhaps becuase not as many people were watching (fewer watch landings that liftoffs). Maybe because it was not the first.
The Columbia Crew made the same ultimate sacrifice and should not be forgotten.
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