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How the Columbia tragedy unfolded — and led to NASA's tough transition

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

NASA observed its annual "Day of Remembrance" for fallen astronauts on Friday with ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, as well as at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and other NASA centers. In this 10th-anniversary commentary, NBC News' longtime Cape Canaveral correspondent, Jay Barbree, looks back at the loss of the shuttle Columbia and its crew:

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — On the morning of that fateful Saturday, the first day of February 2003, the Columbia astronauts prepared their ship for its landing at their Florida launch site.

Touchdown was set for 9:16 a.m. Eastern time, and on Columbia's 255th trip around Earth in 16 days, commander Rick Husband was given the "go" to put on his brakes and leave orbit.  The senior astronaut was flying Columbia backward and tail-up when he ignited the ship's two orbiting maneuvering rockets. Twelve thousand pounds of thrust pounded against Columbia's forward speed for two minutes and 38 seconds.  The burn was "right on the nose," and it slowed the big shuttle's forward motion just enough to drop it out of orbit.


Columbia slammed into Earth's atmosphere at 400,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean.  This is when a spacecraft skips along the upper surface of the planet's air, much like a stone skipping across a lake. The first effects of re-entry heat can be felt when the shuttle penetrates the atmosphere.  Its surface grows hotter and hotter as it plows deeper and deeper into the thickening air. The plasma sheath around the shuttle is hotter than the molten lava pouring from Hawaii's Kilauea volcano.

In physics, plasma is a highly ionized gas containing an approximately equal number of positive ions and electrons.  The super-hot plasma is the product of friction created by a fast-moving object through air.  It first appeared to Columbia's astronauts as a faint salmon glow.  Nearing the California coast, Columbia was dropping like a rock. Its nose-up attitude was focusing the plasma's heat on the reinforced carbon-carbon panels covering the shuttle's nose and the leading edges of its wings.

Dec. 31, 2008: NASA releases information about what the astronauts went through in their final moments onboard the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. NBC's Tom Costello reports.

"This is amazing," pilot Willie McCool said.  "It's really getting, uh, fairly bright out there," he added, staring at the growing intensity of the fire outside.

Veteran commander Rick Husband smiled. It wasn't his first re-entry.  He knew this was only the beginning of the blast furnace that was yet to come.  "Yeah, you definitely don't want to be outside now," he told his pilot.

Columbia crossed the California coast at 8:53 a.m. Eastern time, 23 minutes away from its Florida touchdown.  Below, two news photographers had set up their cameras to get a view of the returning shuttle, but instead of seeing the perfect trail of plasma they expected, the photographers saw a big red flare shoot from underneath Columbia.

The two looked at each other. Was that thing coming apart?

Six minutes later, Columbia crossed the sky 40 miles above north central Texas. The super-hot plasma sped freely through a six-inch hole in Columbia's left wing, made by a chunk of falling tank foam on launch day. The blast melted the ship's inner structure.  America's first space shuttle was ripped into more than 84,000 pieces, killing Columbia's dedicated crew of seven.

Following a seven-month investigation, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, chaired by retired Navy Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., issued a scathing report, confirming that the "the foam did it" and indicting NASA as a co-conspirator. The board declared that "the NASA organizational culture had as much to do with the accident as well as the foam." Its report cited eight missed opportunities to detect the problem during the flight, and identified schedule pressures and communications breakdowns as contributing factors.

NASA decided to retire its space shuttle fleet after meeting its obligations to complete the building of the International Space Station, and drew up plans for safer rockets and spacecraft.

President George W. Bush approved a new generation of space vehicles, aimed at sending astronauts to the moon under a project named Constellation. Then, along came Barack Obama. The new president canceled Constellation, and since then, NASA has struggled.

Today, 10 years after the Columbia tragedy, America's $6.6 billion Florida spaceport sits mostly idle. Several projects are trying to get started. Private companies are working on spaceships that could launch astronauts from U.S. soil again starting sometime in the next several years. NASA is developing a launch system that could be sending Americans beyond Earth orbit a decade from now. Meanwhile, about 8,400 NASA employees and contractors are caretakers of what was once the home of the world's leader in space exploration. Those with vision have moved on to more promising projects, while many of those who are left mark time and cut grass.

More about the Columbia tragedy:


Jay Barbree is in his 55th year with NBC News as a space analyst, correspondent and consultant. He is the only journalist who covered all 166 flights by American astronauts from U.S. soil, and is now writing a book on Neil Armstrong's life of flight.