America may now be aiming to return astronauts to the moon, but for years the US turned its back on manned missions after the space shuttle Columbia disaster.
Its space program suffered a catastrophic setback when all seven astronauts were killed when the shuttle broke up upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere 20 years ago on February 1, 2003.
It was the second shuttle disaster after the 1986 Challenger explosion that also killed the crew and prompted sharp criticism of NASA’s safety culture.
The shuttle fleet remained on the ground for two and a half years and ushered in a major change in American spaceflight.
In 2004, President George W. Bush announced that the incredibly expensive program would be retired.
For years after the shuttle’s last flight in 2011, NASA found itself depending on Russia for transportation to the International Space Station (ISS) until Elon Musk’s Space X began carrying passengers there in 2020.
In addition to the Moon, Washington is now preparing for a manned mission to Mars, tentatively scheduled for the late 1930s or early 1940s.
– ‘Smoke trails’ –
Columbia broke apart at 203,000 feet (61,900 meters) over East Texas just as the mission controller in Houston was speaking with Columbia commander Rick Husband.
“At Columbia, here’s Houston… we didn’t copy your last” message.
After a moment, the husband replied: “Roger but…”
After a brief crackle, contact was lost.
Columbia disappeared from radar screens at 9:00 (1400 GMT), 16 minutes before scheduled landing.
The burning debris from the 80-ton craft was caught hurtling across the sky over the southern United States by local television stations, with parts scattered across Texas and Louisiana.
Bob Molter from Palestine, Texas told National Public Radio how he watched the shuttle break apart in the sky.
“There was a big boom that shook the house for more than a minute, and I went out because I thought there had been a train crash on the line nearby.
“But there was nothing, and then I looked up and saw the smoke trails zigzagging across the sky.”
– heroes –
Columbia was the oldest shuttle to fly into orbit.
When it took off on its 28th flight on January 16, 2003 for a 16-day mission to carry out experiments, it had been operational for more than 20 years.
Flight STS-107 was launched with extremely strict security measures following the September 11, 2001 attacks and with the presence on board of the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon.
Bush cut short a stay at the Camp David presidential retreat and rushed back to Washington after the tragedy. In a televised address he hailed the crew, two of whom were women, as heroes.
A probe revealed that the shuttle disintegrated due to damage caused by a piece of foam from the external fuel tank that detached a piece from the orbiter’s left wing during liftoff.
This made it unable to withstand the extreme temperatures generated by re-entry.
– End of shuttle program –
The shuttle program originated in 1972 under President Richard Nixon and went on to become the primary focus of US human spaceflight ambitions over the next four decades.
The fleet also acted as space trucks, carrying more than 1,500 tons of equipment to help build the first space telescope, Hubble, and the International Space Station.
After the Columbia disaster, NASA underwent dramatic changes aimed at improving its culture and safety.
The agency resumed shuttle flights in July 2005, with Discovery, then Endeavour, and finally Atlantis continuing mission flights to the ISS until 2011.