On February 1st, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart over Texas and Louisiana as it returned from a 16-day mission in space. The cause of the accident was a piece of foam that had fallen off the Shuttle’s external fuel tank during launch. The foam struck the left wing of the shuttle, causing serious damage that ultimately led the vehicle to disintegrate when it reentered Earth’s atmosphere. It was the second major failure for the Space Shuttle program, and all seven crew members onboard the vehicle died.
It was a tragic moment for NASA, but it was also a tragic time for my family. My parents are retired NASA engineers who spent most of their careers on the Space Shuttle program. They were both working the mission, known as STS-107, the day of Columbia’s scheduled landing, and they were two of the first people to know that something had gone wrong with the shuttle. As soon as there was a sign of failure, both of them got to work on figuring out the cause of the accident. The investigation would keep them at work for many long hours over several months.
So for the first half of 2003, I didn’t see my parents that much. I was a freshman in high school and an only child, so I spent a lot of time home alone as my parents exhausted themselves at work. At the time, I didn’t really consider it strange, but my mother told me later that she felt guilty for being away so long. Honestly, my teenage self had begun to crave independence, so I was happy to hold down the fort. The part I didn’t like was seeing my parents in so much pain.
Though the Columbia disaster is an important part of my family’s history, I didn’t start to understand or appreciate the engineering involved until I grew up. Nor did I really grasp just how instrumental my parents were in the investigation. Mom helped to create the timeline of events for the accident — a key tool that served as the main point of reference for all the investigators moving forward. Dad worked on the team that came up with the likeliest failure scenario. So they’re the ones that ultimately determined that the foam was to blame. They even figured out the exact spot on the wing that the foam likely hit.
Now, 14 years later, I asked my parents to talk to me about their experience. For them, it’s still emotional to recount everything, and my mother still holds some regret. NASA investigated the foam before Columbia returned to Earth, and she feels as if she could have asked more questions. I’ve always told her she shouldn’t feel this way, but she says everyone she worked with still holds some regret. But she also talks about how proud she is of the changes NASA made following the accident, arguing that they became an even stronger team.
My parents may be retired now, but they are still extremely fluent in engineer-speak, which means they use a lot of acronyms. I’ve listed a few key terms they use throughout the podcast to use as a guide.
RCC: Reinforced carbon-carbon. It’s a super strong composite material that made up the leading edge of the Shuttle’s wings. When NASA saw that a piece of foam had hit the left wing during launch, the engineers were more concerned about any potential damage done to the wing’s tiles. They were less concerned about the RCC, because they thought it was strong enough to handle a blow. NASA later found that the foam had indeed punched a hole in the RCC, which ultimately led to the accident.
External tank. This was the large orange tank attached to the bell of the Space Shuttle during launch. It held the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellant needed for takeoff. The external tank was insulated with foam to prevent it from overheating. It’s this foam that broke off and hit the left wing of the Shuttle.
SRB: Solid rocket booster. When the Space Shuttle launched, it had the help of two white solid rocket boosters. The SRBs were attached to either side of the external tank and provided extra thrust needed to get the Shuttle into orbit. Two flights before Columbia’s last mission, a piece of foam broke off of the external tank and dented the bottom of one of the SRBs — similar to what happened on STS-107.
MER: Mission evaluation room. This is the room my parents were standing in when the accident occurred. It’s where the engineers who were experts in certain hardware would stay during launch and landing to provide any help to those in Mission Control. Specifically, Mom and Dad were monitoring the wing’s hydraulics, plumbing throughout the Space Shuttle that helps to control certain systems. Just before the accident, hydraulics sensors in the left side of the vehicle were starting to fail, which told my parents right away that something was about to go wrong.
Orbiter. Another name for the Space Shuttle.