What Went Wrong in Columbia's Final Minutes?
On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle
Columbia disintegrated during re-entry into Earth’s
atmosphere. Columbia was due to land in Florida only 15 minutes
later. Why did Columbia self destruct? What went wrong? These
are questions that NASA and much of the international space
community are trying to answer.
The orbiter of the space shuttle is primarily
made of aluminum alloy panel and graphite epoxy materials.
Silica glass tiles and blankets as well as carbon materials
cover the exterior of the orbiter and help protect it from
the extreme temperatures (nearly 3,000° F) experienced
during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. These temperatures
are produced because of the friction between the atmosphere
and the hull. Any failure in the protective devices on the
exterior of the orbiter could cause the orbiter to overheat
and be destroyed.
Re-entry begins at an altitude of about
400,000 ft and at a speed 25 times the speed of sound. The
angle of re-entry depends on the landing site and flight path,
but must be maintained exactly, or the orbiter could be damaged
Investigators are examining all possibilities
including the loss of insulating tiles, an explosion in the
fuel tanks, or a structural failure in the framework of the
orbiter itself. Examination of debris gathered across a large
portion of Texas and Louisiana and evidence of a heat spike
detected by a weather satellite currently supports a hypothesis
that there was a problem with the exterior of the craft, causing
significant temperature spikes in several areas of the orbiter
including the tires and left wing. The exact cause of the
heat spikes has yet to be determined. Debris from the left
solid rocket booster external tank did break off during lift
off and struck the orbiter on the left wing. Investigators
are looking into the possibility that the debris may have
damaged the protective tiles on the left wing.
The investigation into the Columbia tragedy
goes on. It is unlikely that shuttle flights will resume until
NASA is convinced that no such tragedy will occur again.
Follow the continuing investigation
of the Columbia break up. Are there any new hypotheses being
presented? What new evidence is being presented and which
hypothesis does it support? Review the history of space flight,
what advances in space craft design have allowed astronauts
to stay in space longer, perform experiments, and return to
space more frequently.