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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

Remembering Columbia Space Shuttle 20 years later with former astronaut and U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly

STS-107 Crew (top row l-r ): Mission Specialist 1 David M. Brown, Pilot William C. McCool, Payload Commander Michael P. Anderson (bottom row l-r): Mission Specialist 2 Kalpana Chawla, Commander Rick D. Husband, Mission Specialist 4 Laurel Blair Salton Clark, Payload Specialist 1 Ilan Ramon. (Courtesy of NASA)
STS-107 Crew (top row l-r ): Mission Specialist 1 David M. Brown, Pilot William C. McCool, Payload Commander Michael P. Anderson (bottom row l-r): Mission Specialist 2 Kalpana Chawla, Commander Rick D. Husband, Mission Specialist 4 Laurel Blair Salton Clark, Payload Specialist 1 Ilan Ramon. (Courtesy of NASA)

After 16 days orbiting the planet, seven astronauts on the Columbia Space Shuttle were heading back to Earth. They were 38 miles above central Texas and traveling 18 times faster than the speed of sound.

It was Feb. 1, 2003, just before 9 a.m. Astronaut Mark Kelly was in bed at his home in Houston when his brother and fellow astronaut Scott Kelly called.

“My brother just very simply told me that they’ve lost [communication] and lost tracking,” Mark Kelly says. “And what that says to somebody in my business is that this is really, really bad.”

After Houston lost communication with the astronauts, the shuttle’s cabin came apart in hypersonic airflow. All seven on board immediately died. A piece of foam the size of a briefcase meant to keep temperatures regulated on the shuttle had broken away during liftoff weeks earlier. Without that piece of foam, white-hot plasma infiltrated the shuttle, throwing it out of control.

Lt. Col. Michael Anderson, Col. Rick Husband, Cmdr. Laurel Clark, Capt. David Brown, Cmdr. William McCool, Dr. Kalpana Chawla, and Israeli Air Force Col. Ilan Ramon lost their lives 20 years ago Wednesday. Between the seven, they had a total of three space missions. For most, it was their first time in space.

Mark Kelly — now a Democratic senator for Arizona — knew all the astronauts aboard the Columbia and took classes with three of them when he started at NASA.

Years after his retirement as an astronaut, Sen. Kelly says the memories of that day still linger.

“20 years ago was one that I will never forget, that day and the day after,” Kelly says. “And I spend some time thinking about my friends and colleagues and the ultimate sacrifice that they made for exploration and for our country.”

Interview Highlights

On his relationship with the Columbia astronauts 

“I knew all of them really well. Three were my astronaut classmates, meaning we got there at the same time. Laurel Clark, Dave Brown and Willie McCool. We had Challenger when I was in college in 1986, but a loss of another space shuttle, especially when I was there, I mean, it was a really traumatic event for the families, but the astronaut community as well.”

“Every single one of them, six Americans and Ilan Ramon, Israeli citizen, they’re there to serve their country and do something that’s really risky, but they’re there because the reward to our nation is substantial. And I think it’s important that we remember that doing hard things really benefits us as a nation. And my goal and my service in the United States Senate, one of them is that we continue to lead the planet in innovation, in science, in exploration. I think it’s without a doubt the right thing to do. There are risks. We need to accept those risks. And in the case of accidents, we just need to try to do better.”

On his own experiences descending to Earth from space

“It takes about a day and a half to get the orbiter configured for re-entering the atmosphere. You’ve got to stow this radar, the KU antenna. You’ve got to close the payload bay doors. You’ve got to reconfigure the system that cools the vehicle. There’s a lot to do. You’ve got to stow all this stuff. So it’s a very busy day, and then you eventually get strapped into your seats and you’ve got to do the de-orbit burn, which happens about the middle of the Indian Ocean. And then you hit the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean and you’re in a giant fireball. You’re going 25 times the speed of sound and you continue to descend and decelerate. And that tragedy happened during that re-entry phase, starting just about immediately, but culminating in the breakup of the vehicle over in Texas.”

On changes at NASA following the Columbia disaster 

“A space shuttle is the most complex thing I think humans have ever built from a systems-engineering standpoint. I mean, it’s certainly in the top 10, and there’s a lot of risk involved in flying it. As one of the folks that had the opportunity to do this more than once, you understand the risk. And it’s a hard system to manage from a qualitative risk assessment perspective. And I think NASA’s generally done a good job, but there have been times where we’ve clearly fallen short. You know, this is one.

“We knew that foam was coming off of external tanks for years and we didn’t rank it as high of a risk as it should have been. And in this case, a piece of foam came off and put a pretty big hole in the left leading edge of the wing, and that’s part of our thermal protection system. It should have never happened. So after that, we learn from our mistakes and we improve the processes.”

On his first flight back to space after Columbia in 2006

“It was the second of the two return to flight test missions, where we had a test of inspection and repair capability, not only of the leading edge of the wing, like if this scenario would happen again, but what if we lost a lot of tiles off the bottom?”

“I do very distinctly remember the commander of the mission was Steve Lindsey, Air Force guy, he was a pilot. And I remember getting to the point where Columbia started to have this catastrophic failure, and we paused for a second and acknowledged during re-entry that this is where it began, where we lost our friends, and spent the time to think about them for a minute. The reentry and landing is a very busy time frame, you’ve got to be focused. But it was something we talked about during the flight.”


James Perkins-Mastromarino and Katherine Swartz produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Catherine Welch. Swartz also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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