On the morning of February 1st, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia, returning to Earth after a successful 16-day mission, broke apart during re-entry and disintegrated, killing its seven-member crew.
I spent the rest of that afternoon and the ensuing days watching the news coverage as new information came to light, and possible explanations and causes for the disaster began to emerge. To this day, it’s hard to believe that something so seemingly simple as a few damaged heat tiles could wreak such unchecked destruction.
On the other hand, the tragedy served to reinforce the harsh reality of the incredible dangers inherent in manned space flight, and that nothing about it is “simple” or “routine.” I did and still believe that our exploration of space is a worthy and necessary endeavor, and I hope that the sacrifices made by men and women such as Columbia‘s crew always will be heeded when taking our next small steps and giant leaps.
“Generations from now, when the reach of human civilization is extended throughout the solar system, people will still come to this place to learn about and pay their respects to our heroic Columbia astronauts. They will look at the astronauts’ memorial and then they will turn their gaze to the skies, their hearts filled with gratitude for these seven brave explorers who helped blaze our trail to the stars.“
– Sean O’Keefe, NASA Administrator, Arlington National Cemetery, February 2nd, 2004.
(l-r, blue shirts): David Brown, William McCool, Michael Anderson.
(l-r, red shirts): Kalpana Chawla, Rick D. Husband, Laurel Blair Salton Clark, Ilan Ramon