Recalling a tragedy

Shuttle Columbia : One Year Later

January 25, 2004

A year ago next Sunday, America's space program suffered one of its worst tragedies when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over East Texas, killing all aboard and suspending the shuttle program. Following are excerpts from a book, Comm Check ... The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia, about the tragedy, written by Michael Cabbage, space editor of the Orlando Sentinel, and veteran CBS News space reporter William Harwood. The excerpt weaves together transcripts and other evidence to describe what happened during the fatal re-entry of Columbia from space to Earth.

"Looks like a blast furnace."

-- Shuttle commander Rick Husband, midway through re-entry

Plunging back to Earth after a 16-day science mission, the shuttle Columbia streaked through orbital darkness at 5 miles per second, fast enough to fly from Chicago to New York in 2 1/2 minutes and to circle the entire planet in an hour and a half. For Columbia's seven-member crew, the only hint of the shuttle's enormous velocity was the smooth clockwork passage of entire continents far below.

Commander Rick Husband knew the slow-motion view was misleading, a trick of perspective and the lack of anything nearby to measure against the craft's swift passage. He knew the 117-ton shuttle actually was moving through space eight times faster than the bullet from an assault rifle.

And Husband knew that in the next 15 minutes, the shuttle would shed the bulk of that unimaginable speed over the southwestern United States, enduring 3,000-degree temperatures as atmospheric friction converted forward motion into a hellish blaze of thermal energy. It had taken nearly 4 million pounds of rocket fuel to boost Columbia and its crew into orbital velocity. Now the astronauts were about to slam on the brakes.

For Husband, a devout Christian who put God and family ahead of his work as an astronaut, flying this amazing machine home from space was a near-religious experience, one he couldn't wait to share with family and friends gathered at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He had served as pilot on a previous shuttle flight, but this was his first as commander, and in the world of shuttle operations, it's the commander who actually lands the spacecraft.

He relished the opportunity. But before blasting off on his second space flight as commander of Columbia, he videotaped 34 Bible lessons for his two kids, one each for the 17 days he would be away from home.

"The space shuttle is by far the most complex machine in the world," he had told his hometown church congregation three years earlier. "And inside that vehicle are seven astronauts, each one of which is more complex than this vehicle we went up in," he continued. "And God is an awesome God."

Looking over his cockpit instruments as he prepared Columbia for entry, the 45-year-old Air Force colonel chatted easily with his crewmates, coming across more as an older brother than as the skipper of a $3 billion spacecraft. But beneath the camaraderie was the steady hand of a commander at ease with leadership and life-or-death responsibility.

It was 8:44 a.m. on Feb. 1, 2003, and Columbia was descending through 400,000 feet northwest of Hawaii.

"OK, we're just past EI," Husband told his crewmates, marking when Columbia, flying wings level, its nose tilted up 40 degrees, finally fell into the discernible atmosphere.

He was referring to "entry interface," the moment the shuttle descended through an altitude of 76 miles. At that altitude -- 11 times higher than a typical passenger jet flies -- the atmosphere is still a vacuum in the everyday sense of the word. But enough atoms and molecules are present to begin having a noticeable effect on a vehicle plowing through them at 25 times the speed of sound.

Final check

Wearing bulky, bright orange pressure suits, Husband, rookie pilot William "Willie" McCool, flight engineer Kalpana Chawla (pronounced KULP-nah CHAV-lah), and Navy physician-astronaut Laurel Clark were strapped into their seats on Columbia's cramped flight deck, working through the final entries on a long checklist.

The shuttle's flight computers, each one taking in navigation data and plugging the numbers into long strings of equations, were doing the actual flying. Husband wouldn't take over manual control until the orbiter was on final approach, 50,000 feet above the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Husband was in the front left seat, the command position aboard any aircraft, with McCool to his right on the other side of a switch-studded instrument console. Chawla, a native of India, was a veteran of one previous shuttle flight and an accomplished pilot. Something of a legend in her hometown of Karnal in the Indian State of Punjab, Chawla was a role model in a country where less than half the women were literate. She sat directly behind the central console, calling out and double-checking re-entry tasks. Clark was seated to Chawla's right, almost touching shoulders with the diminutive flight engineer.

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