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Craig Sanders
Columbia Shuttle
The Space Shuttle Columbia upon its first landing in 1981. Courtesy of NASA. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.
Columbia Liftoff
The Final Liftoff of Columbia in 2003. Courtesy of Matt Stroshane and CBS News. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA CRASH. The Space Shuttle Columbia, also known as OV-102 (Orbiter Vehicle-102), was the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) first reusable space shuttle and one of five shuttle vehicles that flew in the thirty years that the United States operated shuttles from 1981 to 2011. After completing twenty-seven successful missions, including its inaugural flight STS-1 on April 12, 1981, it suffered a catastrophic breakdown during its tragic twenty-eighth and final flight (STS-107) which culminated in the vehicle’s break-up while reentering Earth’s atmosphere on February 1, 2003, and the loss of all seven astronauts aboard.

Columbia Breakup
The space shuttle Columbia breaks up and streaks across the sky over Texas. Courtesy of Scott Lieberman and CBS News. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.
Columbia Crew 2003
The Crew of STS-107 on space shuttle Columbia in 2003. Courtesy of NASA. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

Columbia’s first mission, STS-1, spent three days in space with Commander John Young and Pilot Robert Crippen, marking the first usage of a winged, manned spacecraft to achieve orbit and then land. Many notable accomplishments were achieved by Columbia, including carrying Spacelab into orbit in November 1983 (mission STS-9), a flight which also carried the first European Space Agency astronaut into space. Columbia also transported the first female Japanese astronaut into space in 1994. In 1999 Columbia deployed the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Upon the launch of STS-107 on January 16, 2003, a small piece of foam broke off from the shuttle’s external fuel tank and hit the orbiter’s left wing. Damage from that foam impact on the shuttle’s thermal protection system caused the vehicle to break up upon reentry sixteen days later as it descended thirty-seven miles above Texas, just minutes before the shuttle was due to land in Florida. Eyewitnesses in North and East Texas reported seeing the break-up and debris of the shuttle.

Columbia Debris
The Columbia shuttle debris is collected and laid out at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Courtesy of NASA. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

All seven crew members aboard the Columbia—Commander Rick Husband, Pilot William McCool, Mission Specialists David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, and Laurel Clark, Payload Commander Michael P. Anderson, and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon—were lost in space. Their deaths were the second in-flight fatalities in American space history. Ramon was the first Israeli astronaut and was making his first spaceflight. Chawla, making her second flight, was the first female astronaut born in India. President George W. Bush led a memorial service for the fallen astronauts at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center on February 4, 2003. Numerous tributes followed, including the renaming of Amarillo International Airport to Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport to honor Commander Rick Husband, an Amarillo native.

Columbia Tribute
The Columbia Tribute, with patches of each Columbia mission and the seven crew members of the final, fatal mission. Courtesy of Amy Lombardo and NASA. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

Debris from the lost shuttle was spread over much of East Texas as well as in Louisiana and Arkansas and resulted in the largest land search ever conducted, led by a team of more than 1,500 individuals from NASA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Forest Service, the Texas Forest Service,and local and state agencies as well as volunteers from around the United States. In Texas the exhaustive search included the setting up of command posts in the communities of Hemphill, Corsicana, Palestine, and Nacogdoches. More than 78,000 pounds of material were eventually recovered in the extensive ground search. After the fatal crash of STS-107, NASA postponed future shuttle flights until mission STS-114 launched with the Space Shuttle Discovery on July 26, 2005.


Michael Cabbage and William Harwood, Comm Check…The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009). Jim Roberts, “In Search Of…Langley Employees Assist in Debris Collection,” Researcher News, Langley Research Center Newsletter (http://researchernews.larc.nasa.gov/archives/2003/050903/Search.html), accessed July 9, 2011. “Space Shuttle Overview: Columbia (OV-102),” NASA Orbiter Fleet, Kennedy Space Center: Shuttle Operations (http://www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/shuttleoperations/orbiters/columbia_info.html), accessed July 9, 2011.

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Craig Sanders, "SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA CRASH," accessed May 31, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/evs01.

Uploaded on May 22, 2012. Modified on January 28, 2020. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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