NACOGDOCHES, Texas (KETK) – It’s been 20 years since the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas, killing all seven astronauts on board in a disaster that marked one of our space program’s darkest days.

The Columbia crew patch shows names of all crew members.
The Columbia crew patch, image courtesy of NASA.

Rick D. Husband (commander), William C. McCool (pilot), David Brown (mission specialist), Laurel Blair Salton Clark (mission specialist), Michael P. Anderson (payload commander), Ilan Ramon (payload specialist) and Kalpana Chawla (mission specialist) were roughly 15 minutes away from touchdown when their shuttle exploded on Feb. 1, 2003.

It was later determined that a piece of fuel-tank foam came off during liftoff weeks earlier, damaging tiles on the left wing which would ultimately compromise the heat shield.

In the blink of an eye, several counties in East Texas became the epicenter of a tragedy that shook the nation, just two years after 9/11. Shuttle parts were found spanning 28,000 square miles, according to a report from the Cherokeean Herald at the time.

“The Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office became the local command center as two of NASA’s special agents in the office of security management and safeguards were hastily flown in Saturday from Johnson Space Center in Houston,” the Cherokeean Herald reported in their Feb. 5, 2003 edition.

The next week’s issue of the publication recalled there being 120 government employees “from an alphabet soup of acronyms” that moved into the local command center to collect all shuttle debris reported by residents.

Simulation showing trajectories of the Columbia orbiter (the blue line in the image) and several pieces of debris (different colored lines).
Simulation showing trajectories of the Columbia orbiter (the blue line in the image) and several pieces of debris (different colored lines). Image taken from NASA’s Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report.
A map depicting the Columbia debris search area, courtesy of NASA.

Neal Barton, of Nexstar’s KETK, was working as chief meteorologist for a Dallas news station at the time but headed back home to the Piney Woods region after he got news of the explosion and recorded debris on his radar. He recalled seeing the wreckage first-hand in downtown Nacogdoches.

“Downtown on the square, on those beautiful red bricks, there was crime scene tape and scattered debris all over downtown,” Barton said. “It was strange. No one spoke loudly, but the sound was deafening.”

Questions of whether the tragedy was an accident or an act of terrorism remained in the early hours of the explosion. Barton said every TV satellite truck in Dallas and Houston was downtown idling.

“It was loud and quiet at the same time. I saw my station’s satellite truck driver, and we just locked eyes and shook our heads,” Barton said.

At that time, the cause of the explosion was still undetermined. Questions remained about what the shuttle was doing over East Texas if it was headed to Florida.

“The reason was the glide-in path was near Longview, because of the extra long runway at East Texas Regional Airport, just in case that was needed. The wreckage was mainly over Nacogdoches and Lufkin. Days later, the bodies and nosecone were recovered in the Hemphill area by Toledo Bend Reservoir.”

Neal Barton

At the time, the Cherokeean Herald reported that 150 volunteer firemen stepped up to help clear debris.

“One thing NASA mentioned time and time again was the hospitality of East Texans,” Barton said. “People volunteering, or being paid, to help clean up debris and the great food locals fed NASA employees for months.”

Barton said a few tried to sell parts of the shuttle on eBay, but they were shut down by the feds.

What happened?

  • The Columbia is seen as a giant ball of light in the sky over East Texas.

It was later discovered that damage to the left wing’s edge by debris from the external tank all but doomed the Columbia crew right from launch.

Data contained in the Columbia’s Modular Auxiliary Data System was key to the accident investigation, according to NASA’s Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report, which was made to study crew safety equipment and procedures. The MADS was found near Hemphill in almost-perfect condition.

Image of the MADS, which was found in Hemphill, taken from NASA’s Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report.

NASA lost contact with the shuttle at 8 a.m. CST. In a press release from that day, NASA said search teams in the Dallas-Fort Worth areas and portions of East Texas had already been alerted and said debris should be avoided as it could be hazardous.

“At the time communications were lost, the shuttle was travelling approximately 12,500 miles per hour (Mach 18),” according to NASA.

When control was lost, reports estimate that the crew would have been working on troubleshooting.

“Until the forebody separated from the orbiter vehicle, the crew was conscious and had not suffered serious injuries,” the crew survival investigation report stated. “Cause of death was unprotected exposure to high-altitude conditions and blunt trauma.”

National response

At 2 p.m. the day of the tragedy, President George Bush addressed the nation from the White House Cabinet Room.

In the skies today we saw destruction and tragedy. Yet farther than we can see there is comfort and hope. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.

The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home.

President George Bush

Bush ordered all flags to be flown at half-staff through Feb. 5, 2003.

A memorial service was held on Feb. 4. During his address at the service, Bush told stories about all astronauts on board, using a specific anecdote from Captain David Brown:

“His brother asked him several weeks ago what would happen if something went wrong on their mission. David replied, ‘This program will go on.'”

It was David’s family that issued a statement in August of 2003, saying it was time to resume exploration. That September, NASA held its first “Return to Flight” status briefing.

NASA’s next launch was July 26, 2005.

The plaque on the Mars Spirit Rover honoring the Columbia astronauts. Photo courtesy of NASA.

In the years after the tragedy, NASA had worked to preserve the memory of those killed in the Columbia disaster, as well as other astronauts killed in the line of duty.

In January 2004, for instance, the Columbia crew was honored on Mars, with NASA naming the landing site for the Mars Spirit Rover as “Columbia Memorial Station.” Each member of the crew, along with those lost during the Challenger explosion, is also memorialized at NASA’s “Forever Remembered” exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, with information and personal items from each astronaut on permanent display.

The International Astronomical Union, based in Paris, gave them a permanent place on the Moon, too, naming seven craters in its Apollo basin after each astronaut.

Each year, NASA also observes a Day of Remembrance for the Columbia astronauts — as well as those on the Challenger, those who perished in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire — at space centers across the country.