Columbia, U.S. space shuttle. On its 28th flight, on Feb. 1, 2003, after completing a 16-day scientific mission, the spacecraft disintegrated during reentry, killing its seven-person crew. About 16 minutes before its expected landing at the Kennedy Space Center, when Columbia was about 203,000 ft (61,900 m) above Texas, communication with the spacecraft was lost; shortly thereafter reports of falling debris began coming in from E Texas and Louisiana. The disaster, the second in the space shuttle program (see also Challenger), led to the suspension of shuttle flights.
Inquiries into the accident were undertaken by NASA, Congress, and an independent investigation board. Ultimately, it was determined that a large piece of foam insulation had broken off the external tank 82 seconds into liftoff and struck the leading edge of the shuttle's left wing, creating a hole in the wing. On reentry, the searing heat generated by friction entered the damaged wing, which then melted, destabilizing the shuttle and causing it to break up. The independent investigative panel was harshly critical of NASA and called for numerous reforms, most to repair NASA's "broken safety culture." Shuttle flights did not resume until July, 2005.
See P. Chien, Columbia: Final Voyage (2006).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.