It’s a typical morning at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral and the seven astronauts on board the Columbia space shuttle are on their way back home after spending 15 days in the vacuum of space. But as the shuttle begins its descent, something goes horribly wrong.
Telemetry Indicates Trouble
As the shuttle initiates its reentry procedures, telemetry indicates that the hydraulic fluid temperatures have gone off-scale low, with no explanation for the fault. Additionally, tire pressure on the left side of the shuttle begins to drop, making a smooth landing impossible. With every passing second, more and more sensors begin to malfunction and communication with the shuttle is lost.
As reports come in from Texas of people spotting fireballs in the sky, it becomes clear that the worst fears of the flight team have been realized. Columbia is lost, along with its crew of seven.
Investigation Reveals Cause of Disaster Following the tragedy, the Shuttle program is shut down for two years and a rigorous investigation is launched. The investigation board ultimately reveals that the spacecraft’s fate was sealed during its take-off on January 16th. A large piece of foam had fallen from the shuttle’s external tank and breached the spacecraft’s wing. This hole caused atmospheric gases to bleed into the shuttle as it went through its fiery re-entry, leading to the loss of the sensors and the mission.
Remembering Kalpana Chawla
Among the seven astronauts lost in the disaster was Kalpana Chawla, a talented astronaut who graduated from Tagore School in Karnal, India in 1976. Chawla began working at NASA Ames Research Center in the area of powered-lift computational fluid dynamics in 1988 and was responsible for the development and implementation of efficient techniques to perform aerodynamic optimization. She was selected by NASA in December 1994 to be an astronaut and had completed one successful space mission before the Columbia disaster.
The Columbia space shuttle disaster remains one of the worst in American space exploration history and serves as a tragic reminder of the risks and sacrifices made in pursuit of space exploration. The loss of the seven crew members, including astronaut Kalpana Chawla, is felt deeply by the NASA community and the world at large.