How the Columbia shuttle disaster changed space travel

Wellpeople around NASA don’t care much about this time of year. 56 years ago last week – January 27, 1967 – astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee lost their lives in a fire on the launch pad in their Apollo 1 spacecraft while conducting a countdown dress rehearsal. 37 years ago – on January 28, 1986 – the space shuttle Challenger exploded during launch due to a faulty seal that caused one of the rocket boosters to ignite the external fuel tank. The pair of solid boosters flew nonchalantly, leaving a terrifying two-fingered fireball in the sky as seven astronauts died, including New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe.

Seventeen years later, on January 28, 2003, astronaut Rick Husband, commander of the space shuttle Columbia, then in orbit, celebrated the anniversaries. “They made the ultimate sacrifice,” he said, “giving their lives for their country and humanity. Their dedication was an inspiration to all of us.”

America would have to find a similar kind of grim inspiration just four days later, when on February 1 — 20 years ago today — Columbia met a Challenger-like end, disintegrating on re-entry as hot plasma ripped the spacecraft from a breach in the leading edge of the left wing. The husband and his crew of six were killed as the shuttle, on its way to land at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, left a debris trail that stretched from east Texas to Louisiana.

“A poisonous rain of broken shuttle pieces fell on backyards, roadsides and parking lots, through the roof of a dentist’s office, parts of machinery in Nacogdoches, an arm and a leg in San Augustine,” writes TIME’s Nancy Gibbs, as part of the magazine’s cover package this week .

Then-President George W. Bush scheduled a call with family members of the lost crew for later that day and spent part of the morning studying crew biographies to see which astronauts had spouses and children.

“Tough day, tough day,” was all Bush managed to mutter to himself as he prepared to make the call.

That was really it. NASA reacted, as NASA does in such circumstances, first with a certain minimalism and stoicism. As I reported in an article that accompanied Nancy’s: “‘A space shuttle contingency has been declared,'” came the voice of mission control in dry space agency argot. It was an echo of the understated announcement 17 years ago when the space shuttle Challenger was engulfed in a horrific fireball and a stunned NASA narrator was left to declare: “Apparently a major malfunction.”

But NASA has done other things when faced with tragedy. He looked for the cause of the problem and fixed it. In the case of the Apollo 1 fire, that meant redesigning the spacecraft from top to bottom to avoid the kind of accidental spark that ignited the flame, as well as replacing the cockpit’s pure oxygen atmosphere—which burns like gasoline—with oxygen -nitrogen mixture when the spacecraft was under the high internal pressure of the earth. (In space, where the internal pressure is much lower due to the vacuum outside, the spacecraft can safely be filled with pure oxygen.) NASA also replaced all fabric in the spacecraft, including the astronauts’ suits, with burn-resistant beta cloth. In the Challenger’s case, fixing what went wrong meant redesigning the solid-propellant boosters and changing the launch rules to prevent liftoff in the uncharacteristically freezing Florida morning that January morning that left the engine seals brittle.

In the case of Columbia, the work meant first finding the cause of a breach in the shuttle that allowed hot plasma to enter the spacecraft. It was eventually traced via liftoff footage to a suitcase-sized piece of rigid insulating foam that fell from the external tank and hit the wing in the first moments of the spacecraft’s flight. That meant removing the insulating foam where the tank joins the shuttle—the area from which the lethal fragment fell—and replacing it with heaters. It also meant that on future flights to the International Space Station, shuttle pilots would do something of a pirouette on their vehicle so that astronauts on the station could visually inspect it. NASA also kept another shuttle on standby in case a mission needed to be launched to rescue crew aboard a craft that could not safely enter.

But both Columbia and Challenger also ushered in another kind of change—a sort of back-to-the-future turn in spacecraft design. The rocket revolution that the shuttle program wanted to herald was meant to end the old model of putting people on top of a booster, launching them into space, and discarding the launch vehicle after a single use. The new shuttle will be reusable, with the spacecraft itself gliding gracefully back to Earth, the spent solid boosters parachuted into the ocean and recovered, and only the outer tank little more than a giant shell of metal and plumbing – will be discarded.

But there was a life-saving advantage to the old design that NASA avoided with the shuttles: that the crew landed on top the pyrotechnics. Since the days of NASA’s first manned flights, spacecraft and booster packs have been designed so that sensors would detect any impending problem in the rocket and either blast the crew capsule away from it via emergency engines or, in the case of the Program A two-man Gemini from the 1960s signaled the commander to pull a D-ring that would activate the parachute-equipped ejection seats.

In the newer shuttle design, the crew is located directly to the pyrotechnics. Challenger’s tank explosion happened with the shuttle riding it on top like a man on a horse. Columbia’s wing could never have been damaged had it not been located below the tank area from which the foam fell. Even before the remaining three shuttles were retired in 2011, NASA promised that in the future it would keep fuel and people separate, returning to the old model of a crew riding atop the rocket — a model adopted by the New Moon rocket of NASA, Space Launch System; SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Starship rockets; and Boeing’s manned Starliner spacecraft. And in SpaceX’s case, most of the disposal problem has been solved, with the first stage of the Falcon 9 and both stages of the planned Starship rocket being returned for upright landings, allowing them to be reused.

Now, two decades after the most recent loss and generations removed from the earlier ones, NASA is not letting the memory of the missing men and women — or the sacrifice they made — fade. Each year, on the last Thursday of January, the space agency holds NASA Memorial Day to celebrate their lives and mourn their loss. We accept space travel as a fixed fact of life in the 20th and 21st centuries. But crews take big risks—of physics, fate, and engineering—when they board a spacecraft. We all benefit from the fact that they do – and we all become the poorer, the sadder, for the mercifully few times the gamble doesn’t pay off.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at [email protected]

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