NASA reveals insane mission that could have saved space shuttle Columbia

In 2003, the space shuttle Columbia was lost when an accident at launch conspired to destroy it upon re-entry. It was a great tragedy, and one that spurred NASA to develop a contingency plan which could have saved the stricken crew. It reads like a movie script that would make Apollo 13 look like a kids movie. The Columbia’s demise was put down to a busted tile on the shuttle’s wing, which failed to protect the ship from the intense heat generated by returning to the earth’s atmosphere from space. That tile was broken during launch.

At 10:39 Eastern Standard Time on January 16, 2003, space shuttle Columbia lifted off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A mere 81.7 seconds later, a chunk of insulating foam tore free from the orange external tank and smashed into the leading edge of the orbiter’s left wing at a relative velocity of at least 400 miles per hour (640 kph), but Columbia continued to climb toward orbit. The foam strike was not observed live. Only after the shuttle was orbiting Earth did NASA’s launch imagery review reveal that the wing had been hit. Foam strikes during launch were not uncommon events, and shuttle program managers elected not to take on-orbit images of Columbia to visually assess any potential damage. Instead, NASA’s Debris Assessment Team mathematically modeled the foam strike but could not reach any definitive conclusions about the state of the shuttle’s wing. The mission continued.

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