‘It didn’t have to happen:’ Space journalist reviews Columbia disaster 20 years later

Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart on reentry, killing the crew

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – Lee Freeman and Kim Nicholls said they still remember where they were and what they were doing in England on the morning of Feb. 1, 2003.

The couple paid a somber visit to Kennedy Space Center Wednesday, walking through the exhibit that pays tribute to the Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia crews.

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“I remember watching that first reentry,” Freeman said. “You sort of feel yourself crossing your fingers to make sure everyone got home OK.”

Delayed for two years because of various issues, the STS-107 mission on Space Shuttle Columbia finally launched on Jan. 16, 2003.

Just 81 seconds into launch, a chunk of foam flew off the shuttle’s external fuel tank and struck Columbia’s heat-resistant panels on its left wing. The damage to the heat shield proved catastrophic when Columbia tried to return to Earth.

The shuttle broke apart over Texas on reentry on Feb. 1, killing the seven astronauts on board.

CBS space consultant Bill Harwood, who co-authored a book about Columbia following his reporting in 2003, said NASA should have kept the mission on the ground.

“I always am struck by the fact that it didn’t have to happen,” Harwood said. “The real mistake was the decision to launch in the first place when they knew they had an ongoing problem with foam insulation coming off the tank.”

It was NASA’s second space shuttle tragedy. Space Shuttle Challenger exploded during launch on Jan. 28, 1986, killing the seven-member crew.

Harwood said NASA was able to learn from its mistakes following both space shuttle disasters.

“When you look back on the accidents like Challenger and Columbia, those were in-house NASA disasters,” he said. “They learned a lot of lessons from that and implemented them in subsequent flights.”

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About the Author:

James joined News 6 in March 2016 as the Brevard County Reporter. His arrival was the realization of a three-year effort to return to the state where his career began. James is from Pittsburgh, PA and graduated from Penn State in 2009 with a degree in Broadcast Journalism.