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NASA remembers space shuttle Columbia crew 20 years after disaster

Posted at 1:57 PM, Feb 01, 2023

It's been 20 years since space shuttle Columbia broke apart during reentry, killing the entire crew of seven.

NASA had high hopes for Columbia's 28th mission. It rocketed into space on Jan. 16, 2003, to begin a 16-day microgravity research mission.

Commander Rick Husband, pilot Willie McCool, mission specialists Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson, David Brown and payload specialist Ilan Ramon of Israel worked in teams of two, rotating sleep shifts, in order to conduct and complete scientific experiments.

"Scientists on the ground were overjoyed at their performance and amazed at the greater than expected science return from the mission," NASA stated.

During the mission, NASA was aware of a piece of foam insulation that appeared to strike Columbia's left wing. Mission control, however, assured the crew that it wasn't a cause for concern. An investigation found that engineers on the ground requested high-resolution imaging of the affected area, but their request was denied.

On Feb. 1, 2003, the crew was given the go-ahead to deorbit and return to earth. Mission control lost contact with Columbia as it broke apart at an altitude of 207,000 feet. The crew was 16 minutes from landing at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA said.

The legacy of the astronauts lives on. The space agency says it was able to download up to 90% of results from experiments conducted while the crew was in space. NASA said it was unable to retrieve data from experiments that required returned samples, except for in one case. It reports that some microscopic worms, known as C. elegans, survived reentry and the crash.

NASA created a permanent exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center to honor the astronauts who died on Columbia and Challenger.