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Top 10 myths surrounding NASA's Columbia space shuttle disaster

Retrace the final, tragic flight of the space shuttle Columbia, from its launch to its catastrophic end on Feb. 1, 2003.

The disastrous loss of the shuttle Columbia is firmly enshrined in human memory and popular culture. But as so often happens, much of what people think they remember has become more myth and garble than actual reality.

This is a normal process: Sometimes it helps humanize the inhuman horror by camouflaging events that are too painful to remember as they were. Sometimes the events need to be fit into wider narratives, to reassure us that they had more than random significance.

But for those who want to help themselves, and others around them, to stick to the facts, in tribute to the fallen, I've composed my own list of myths — some harmless, some not so much. This is a continuation of earlier myth-busting work by others.

The biggest misconception is what I call "Myth Zero." This pernicious and poisonous myth is that the disaster was an "accident" — suggesting that it was caused by factors beyond human control, and was just one of those things that should be expected and tolerated on the space frontier.

As investigators later determined — and as some experienced safety analysts warned beforehand — the root cause was a series of bad decisions made by people who ignored traditional and time-tested strict safety standards. The disaster was a consequence of that flaw, not of the essential and unavoidable nature of spaceflight. In such a culture, disasters were not accidental, but inevitable.

Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin often pointed out that spaceflight is so very difficult that humans can handle the hazards only if they're at their best. If we relax from relentless vigilance, spaceflight will kill, and has killed. But in the end it is usually the softness of humans, and not the hardness of space, that is to blame.

Here, then, are the top 10 typical myths surrounding the Columbia's loss on Feb. 1, 2003, and the realities underlying them:

1. The vehicle blew up when it hit the atmosphere.

Columbia was lost when the air drag across its left wing, created by turbulence around a growing hole on the leading edge, jerked its nose to the left too strongly for steering rockets to overcome. It then turned end over end at least once before aerodynamic braking broke its back and tore it into pieces. The crew cabin was then crushed and torn apart by the severe deceleration.

2. The vehicle was flaming and trailing smoke.

The streaks in the sky over east Texas that morning were essentially meteoric effects resulting from Columbia's speed — about Mach 15 — and its 40-mile altitude. Fragments of the spacecraft ionized the thin air that they passed through. There was enough frictional heating to scorch some of those fragments as they continued to fall, but no flames or smoke in the traditional sense.

3. The crew died instantly.

Equipped with spacesuits and parachutes, the crew would have had time to experience the initial tumble and breakup for several seconds, and to hope that they might be thrown free and descend safely by parachute. At least one of the astronauts had neglected to fasten their helmet and gloves, and died of asphyxiation. Others were killed by the blunt force trauma suffered during collisions with swirling cabin fragments. Had the ship been slightly lower and slower when it disintegrated, some of the astronauts might well have been saved by their bailout suits.

4. The spacecraft was crippled by 'space lightning' during re-entry, but NASA covered it up.

A widely circulated image taken in California showed the shuttle's fireball streak with a zigzag line catching up with it. Two effects produced this optical illusion. First, a shuttle re-entry typically leaves a persistent streak across the sky that lasts several minutes. Second, the camera was taking a time exposure on a tripod, so when the "open" button was pushed, it briefly shook, laying down the zigzag.

5. The foam came off because of EPA regulations banning stronger glue that used Freon.

The Environmental Protection Agency did ban CFC-11 in the mid-1990s, and NASA eventually selected an alternative — but it wasn't used in the section of the external tank where the fatal chunk tore off. A different foam, not covered by the EPA regulation, had been used there, so the cause of the shedding had nothing to do with environmental concerns.

6. A secret nuclear-powered Israeli spy device was on board.

The presence of Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, sparked many conspiracy theories, as did post-disaster search instructions to be cautious around some specific types of debris. But the cautions related to hazardous chemical fuels always carried on shuttles, and there was no room in the cargo manifests or electrical power budgets for any super-secret dangerous payload.

7. Satellite photographs captured the vehicle exploding in space.

These grisly images were an Internet hoax using stills from a science-fiction movie.

8. The astronauts had earlier relayed photographs of an ominous crack or dent in the spaceship's wing.

The images in Israeli newspapers and across the Internet actually showed the front wall of the payload bay, not the wing at all. And the cracks and dents were normal non-hazardous structural features.

9. NASA knew the spaceship was fatally damaged but decided not to tell the crew.

This newborn myth consists entirely of exaggerated or misrepresented excerpts from a recent blog posting by former NASA official Wayne Hale. He reported a private conversation during the mission that speculated what might be best in the event lethal damage were discovered. No official decision was ever made, because nobody thought there was any need. Columbia's astronauts were fully informed of the actual results of NASA's analysis, which determined that the impacting debris had not hit a vital region of the heat shield. That conclusion was found to be erroneous only in hindsight.

10. Nostradamus had predicted the disaster in a quatrain referring to seven who perish in a ship descending from the sky over Texas.

The purported quatrain, like a similar prophecy about the 9/11 terror attacks, is a complete hoax. Its author has never been tracked down. 

There are many other lunacies on the Internet. Other, more obscure myths have involved the Tesla death ray, the secret HAARP system in Alaska, or numerology, or corporate espionage, or a UFO attack, or solar storms that zapped the shuttle. One tall tale has the same astronaut being "bumped" from both the shuttle Challenger and Columbia.

On the 10th anniversary of the disaster, it's fitting to remember those who were lost in the mission: commander Rick Husband, pilot William McCool, Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark. It's also fitting to remember the two searchers who died in a helicopter crash during the recovery effort: pilot Jules F. Mier Jr. and Charles Krenek. But such remembrances require authentic memories.

More about the Columbia tragedy:


NBC News space analyst James Oberg spent 22 years at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer. He is the author of several books on space history and space policy.