On January 16, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia set off on its 28th mission from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. During the launch, a one-pound piece of foam broke off and impacted the thermal protection system on the edge of the shuttle’s left wing. NASA’s ignorance of the damage caused by this would ultimately spell doom for the crew of seven onboard.

The mission, designated STS-107, was to conduct a handful of different experiments in space and then return to Earth. Onboard was David Brown, Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Rick Husband, Kalpana Chawla, and William McCool. The crew would spend 16 days in orbit, and during that time, several people within NASA pushed to get a better look at the damage on the left wing of the shuttle. Unfortunately, NASA officials rejected the notion and continued with the mission.

On February 1, 2003, the shuttle made its usual landing approach to the Kennedy Space Center. During the approach, Mission Control lost temperature readings from sensors on the shuttle’s left wing. Shortly after, tire pressure readings were also lost from the left side of the shuttle. At this point in time, Capcom began to reach out to Columbia to discern what had happened.

Husband would reply to Capcom with the word “Roger,” following by another word that was cut off by static. Mission control continued to make attempts to communicate with the crew but could never get through to them. The left wing’s damage had allowed blazing hot atmospheric gases to penetrate the heat shield, destroying the internal wing structure and causing the shuttle to lose control and break apart during re-entry.

The crew of Space Shuttle Columbia. From left to right are David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, William McCool, and Ilan Ramon

Debris was strewn across southeastern Texas and southern Louisiana, and sadly, all seven crew members perished. The horrific accident followed closely behind the Challenger disaster, which happened only about 17 years prior.

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