Fifteen years ago today, the Space Shuttle Columbia’s flight back to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida was cut short in the sky over Texas. A piece of insulating foam had broken off the external fuel tank during the launch on 16 January 2003. It had pierced the left wing of the shuttle, making it inevitable that the craft would lose control and break apart as it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere over north Texas sixteen days later.
A memorial plaque mounted on the back of the high-gain antenna on the Mars rover, Spirit, carries a plaque commemorating the STS-107 Space Shuttle Columbia crew. The names of the STS-107 crew are inscribed on the plaque: Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, Laurel B. Clark, and Ilan Ramon. Their names are now looking over the Martian landscapes.
Mission Specialist David “Doc” Brown sent the following email shortly before Columbia began her doomed re-entry flight profile:
From: MS1 [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Friday, January 31, 2003 12:39 PM
Subject: Flight Day 16
It’s hard to believe but I’m coming up on 16 days in space and we land tomorrow.
I can tell you a few things:
Floating is great – at two weeks it really started to become natural. I move much more slowly as there really isn’t a hurry. If you go to fast then stopping can be quite awkward. At first, we were still handing each other things, but now we pass them with just a little push.
We lose stuff all the time. I’m kind of prone to this on Earth, but it’s much worse here as I can now put things on the walls and ceiling too. It’s hard to remember that you have to look everywhere when you lose something, not just down.
The views of the Earth are really beautiful. If you’ve ever seen a space IMAX movie that’s really what it looks like. What really amazes me is to see large geographic features with my own eyes. Today, I saw all of Northern Libya, the Sinai Peninsula, the whole country of Israel, and then the Red Sea. I wish I’d had more time just to sit and look out the window with a map but our science program kept us very busy in the lab most of the time. The science has been great and we’ve accomplished a lot. I could write more but about it but that would take hours.
My crewmates are like my family – it will be hard to leave them after being so close for 2 1/2 years. My most moving moment was reading a letter Ilan brought from a Holocaust survivor talking about his seven-year old daughter who did not survive. I was stunned such a beautiful planet could harbor such bad things. It makes me want to enjoy every bit of the Earth for how great it really is.
I will make one more observation – if I’d been born in space I know I would desire to visit the beautiful Earth more than I’ve ever yearned to visit to space. It is a wonderful planet.”