Ten years ago, 16-minutes before STS 107 was to land at KSC in Florida following a successful mission, the unthinkable happened:
CapCom 1 “Columbia Houston, UHF com check.”
CapCom 2 “Communications with Columbia were lost at about 8 a.m. Central time, about 10 minutes ago.”
Columbia had broken apart as it entered Earth’s atmosphere.
At a remembrance held at KSC, former astronaut Bob Cabana, then the director of flight crew operations, said he was standing out in the middle of the shuttle landing facility ready to greet the crew:
“Soon it became very obvious that something very bad had happened. And that was the beginning of a very difficult time for their families, their friends, the shuttle program and our agency.”
Evelyn Husband-Thompson was with her two young children anxiously waiting to welcome her commander husband Rick.
“Anticipating a joyful homecoming of our crew, we were jolted in the viewing area, into a nightmarish stroll of fear, uncertainty and horror, that led to a crushing announcement that the crew had perished during re-entry. Words of sorrow, efforts to comfort, even fathoming the magnitude of loss, was overwhelming that day.”
Overall, NASA recovered about 40 percent of the orbiter that had scattered from the Texas panhandle to Fort Polk, Louisiana. The remains of the crew of STS 107 were found near Hemphill, about 170 miles north of Houston. Eileen Collins piloted STS 114, the Return to Flight mission in 2005:
“The shuttle was a test program, but it achieved its ultimate goal — the International Space Station — and we have inspired over 30 years of school children to study math and science. To our friends from Mission STS 107, here were are ten years later, we still love you, we still miss you, how can we ever thank you for your contributions, to the great journey of human discovery?”
An extensive investigation determined a piece of insulating foam broke away from an external fuel tank and cracked a panel on the left wing allowing hot gas to seep in on re-entry. It caused the craft to lose control and disintegrate.