On the morning of February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia was returning to Earth after a successful 16-day mission when it 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 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 crewed space flight, and nothing about it is “simple” or “routine.” I did and still believe our exploration of space is a worthy and necessary endeavor, and I hope the sacrifices made by men and women such as Columbia‘s crew will always 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