Space shuttle Columbia's second life - as a cautionary tale

Thu Jan 31, 2013 6:55pm EST
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By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Space shuttle Columbia's flying days came to an abrupt and tragic end on February 1, 2003, when a broken wing gave way, dooming the seven astronauts aboard.

Although Columbia now lies in pieces, its mission is not over.

The recovered wreckage, painstakingly retrieved from Texas and Louisiana for months after the accident, was preserved for a unique archive and education program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"I can talk about safety, but once I open those doors and folks enter into the room, it becomes a different conversation," said Michael Ciannilli, who oversees NASA's Columbia Research and Preservation Office. "When you come face to face with Columbia in the room, it becomes real. It becomes extremely real."

Ten years ago, Columbia was on its 28th mission, a rare research initiative in the midst of International Space Station construction flights.

The crew included the first astronaut from Israel, Ilan Ramon, and six Americans - commander Richard Husband, pilot William McCool, flight engineer Kalpana Chawla, payload commander Michael Anderson and flight surgeons David Brown and Laurel Clark.

After 16 days in space, the shuttle was gliding back to Florida for landing when it broke apart due to wing damage that had unknowingly occurred during launch.

Accident investigators determined that a chunk of insulating foam from the shuttle's fuel tank had fallen off 81 seconds after liftoff and hit a carbon composite wing panel that turned out to be unexpectedly fragile. The breach proved fatal.   Continued...

The space shuttle Columbia lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, reflected in salt marsh swamps surrounding the pad in this file photo from January 16, 2003. February 1, 2013 marks the 10th anniversary since the orbiter broke apart in the skies over Texas, killing the crew of seven astronauts. Columbia broke up as it re-entered the atmosphere because of damage to the leading edge of the left wing. REUTERS/Pierre DuCharme/Files