Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster

U.S. #3190a – Space Shuttle Program stamp from Celebrate the Century pane.

On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia exploded, taking the lives of seven astronauts.

During the 1970s, NASA scientists and engineers began developing a manned spacecraft that could be reused. The goal was to create a vehicle that was launched like a rocket, but landed like an airplane. This dream came true on April 12, 1981, when the United States launched Columbia, the first space shuttle.

Columbia and the other shuttles that followed were designed to be used more than 100 times to carry satellites, space probes, and other heavy loads into orbit. Additionally, the space shuttles could retrieve satellites that needed servicing. Sometimes the astronauts repaired the satellites in space, while others were brought back to Earth.

Over the course of 22 years, Columbia completed 27 successful missions carrying 355 astronauts safely to and from space. Some of the milestones included a number of firsts: re-use of a manned space vehicle, four-person crew, deployment of a commercial satellite, six-person crew, and Spacelab.

Item #M11176 pictures the crew of the Columbia.

On January 16, 2003, Columbia took off on its 28th mission with a crew of seven astronauts on board. A piece of foam insulation broke off of the shuttle’s propellant tank about 80 seconds in to the launch and hit part of the left wing. While this had happened before without incident, some engineers at NASA believed the damage could be catastrophic. However, the issue wasn’t addressed during the next two weeks as the mission specialists conducted experiments.

After a successful mission, they re-entered earth’s atmosphere on the morning of February 1, 2003. Less than 10 minutes later, at 8:53 a.m., the first signs of trouble arose. Wind entered the broken part of the wing and blew it to pieces, dropping debris near Lubbock, Texas. A minute later, NASA received its last communication fro the crew and at 9 a.m., the Columbia exploded in the sky over southeast Texas. People on the ground heard a loud boom and looked up to see streaks of smoke in the sky. The debris landed through Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

Item #FD1100 – Silver Proof coins honoring the Columbia and other U.S. space shuttles.

A memorial to the crew was erected at Arlington National Cemetery. During the dedication ceremony, NASA administrator O’Keefe called the Columbia crew “heroes for our time and all times.” President Bush called for creating a “living memorial” to the crew by giving the agency a “new focus and vision to take humans back to the moon and beyond.”

Click here to watch the Columbia’s final launch.

Click the images to add this history to your collection.

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  1. I grew up in the Buck Rogers era. When the first man in space was televised, it was unreal. After 21 years flying jets in the Air Force, space flight seemed somewhat routine. I retired in TX. I remember seeing a plasma trail across the sky to the north on one early evening landing. It was surreal. When the reentry of Columbia was announced on that fateful day, I went outside and looked to the north. The image and view was not the same. That moment will be ingrained in my memory forever.

  2. I think we should have continued the space shuttle program until a replacement could have been developed instead of paying the Russians a fortune to get back and forth to the International Space Station.

  3. The courage of our astronauts is unquestionable. The conditioning both mental and physical is exhaustive and is indicative by the fact that there are so many who aspire but do not make the cut ,particularly here in Florida. Competition is fierce in spite of the dangers that have always existed. I remember the quote from the movie “The Right Stuff” from a skeptic during the Project Mercury years that they (astronauts) aren’t doing anything that a monkey couldn’t do. The response from the Chuck Yeager character was, “The monkey doesn’t realize he is sitting on top of a bomb.

  4. I am a space buff and collector of space stamps and coins. I followed the missions on tv and actually got to see a shuttle go up from the backyard of a friend’s home in Kissimmee and it was awesome. It was a great moment in history and, I agree, the astronauts show be honored for what they did.

  5. Also named after the Command Module of Apollo 11, the first manned landing on a celestial body. Columbia was also the female symbol of the United States.

  6. One big correction to the article. Columbia did NOT fly to the International Space Station. All experiments were conducted aboard Columbia in experiment modules inside the Payload bay. Since Columbia was flying independent and there was no remote arm to inspect the shuttle, the breach in the wing was not located on camera. Had the Columbia been at the ISS, the breach would have been discovered and the astronauts could have been rescued.

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