Shuttle Countdown T Minus 2 Days: A Tribute to Columbia

Graphic design credit: NASA/Amy Lombardo. NASA publication number: SP-2010-08-163-KSC

On April 12, 1981, a stark white Columbia broke the surly bonds of Earth when it roared into space as America’s first reusable Space Shuttle.

Columbia (OV-103) was named after the American ship Columbia Rediviva which, under the command of Captain Robert Gray in the late 1790’s, explored the US Pacific Northwest and became the first American vessel to circumnavigate the globe. It is also named after the Apollo 11 Command Module.

Columbia was the only shuttle to fly with a white external tank. The original external tank was originally painted white to protect it from harmful UV damage while sitting on the launch pad. When it was determined that the UV light really posed no significant threat to the tank, it was decided that the tank would no longer be painted and would remain the rust color of the encapsulating bare insulating foam. This change alone reduced the weight of the shuttle by nearly 600 lbs (272 kg).

Since Columbia was the first space worthy shuttle, its design had yet to be streamlined for weight. Columbia was easily the heaviest of the orbiters and because of its weight Columbia was never able to aid in the construction of the International Space Station (ISS). Despite its weight limitations Columbia contributed to remarkable scientific discovery as well as a number of “firsts” for the space program.

In November 1983, Columbia launched Spacelab‘s maiden voyage on STS-9. Spacelab was a laboratory designed to fit into the cargo bay of the shuttle and would be solely devoted to experiments encompassing all of the sciences. While Spacelab  traveled around all of the shuttles, its 16th and final mission in 1998 returned it back to its origins upon Columbia.

Columbia’s STS-9 was host to the first European Space Agency astronaut, Dr. Ulf Merbold of Germany. In 1994 the Japanese Space Agency’s Chiaki Mukai entered history as the first Japanese woman to fly in space while a member of the STS-65 crew. The crew of STS-73 even “threw” the ceremonial first pitch for game five of the 1995 baseball World Series, making it easily the fastest fast pitch in history. Yet even considering all of those “firsts,” Columbia’s crowning achievement has to be the launch and deployment of the Chandra X-ray Observatory in July 1999 and the servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope (SM3B) in March of 2002.

Columbia and all of the 7 crew members of STS-107 were tragically lost on February 1, 2003 during re-entry. The leading edge of Columbia’s wing was damaged  by a small piece of foam that had fallen off of the external tank during lift-off on January 16, 2003. The friction of re-entry was enough to cause a fire in the wing of the aircraft, which lead to the aircraft breaking apart over Texas and Louisiana border. Doppler radar imagery taken shortly after the accident made it very easy to narrow down the rescue/recovery radius for searchers.

The debris field is the red streak crossing the TX/LA border.

We may never know if Columbia could have been repaired while in flight. After the accident, the shuttle program took a hiatus for the next two years while important safety modifications were made to each remaining shuttle, and new procedures were designed and tested to inspect and repair thermal tiles while in orbit if a similar event were to ever happen again during lift-off.

Columbia was a beautiful orbiter with the capability of allowing astronauts to peer into the mysteries of the universe. She and  her 7 member crew will never be forgotten for their sacrifices to the pursuit of science and exploration.

Columbia Tribute
From "NASA|Art" "Among the Stars and Angels" by Zigi Ben Haim 2006 Mixed Media on Aluminum

The lost Columbia crew is remembered with a large triptych laden with symbols surrounding the ghostly outline of the shuttle. Included are flowers to represent Laurel Clark, whose nickname was Flora; a sign on 74th Street in New York, renamed after Kalpana Chawla; and the torn, blurry diary of Ilan Ramon. At the upper right, a constellation of seven stars includes a Star of David for Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut. – “NASA|Art”