CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Space shuttle Columbia's flying days came to an abrupt and tragic end on Feb. 1, 2003, when a broken wing gave way, dooming the seven astronauts aboard.
Although Columbia now lies in pieces, its mission is not over.
The recovered wreckage, painstakingly retrieved from Texas and Louisiana for months after the accident, was preserved for a unique archive and education program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
"I can talk about safety, but once I open those doors and folks enter into the room, it becomes a different conversation," said Michael Ciannilli, who oversees NASA's Columbia Research and Preservation Office. "When you come face to face with Columbia in the room, it becomes real. It becomes extremely real."
Ten years ago, Columbia was on its 28th mission, a rare research initiative in the midst of International Space Station construction flights.
The crew included the first astronaut from Israel, Ilan Ramon, and six Americans — commander Richard Husband, pilot William McCool, flight engineer Kalpana Chawla, payload commander Michael Anderson and flight surgeons David Brown and Laurel Clark.
After 16 days in space, the shuttle was gliding back to Florida for landing when it broke apart because of wing damage that had unknowingly occurred during launch.
Accident investigators determined that a chunk of insulating foam from the shuttle's fuel tank had fallen off 81 seconds after liftoff and hit a carbon composite wing panel that turned out to be unexpectedly fragile. The breach proved fatal.
NASA had no idea falling foam debris, a common occurrence during shuttle launches, could do so much damage.
"One of the most important things that came from Columbia is to really learn to listen to your hardware. It's talking to you," Ciannilli said.
Pieces of Columbia's heat shield, including wing panels and protective thermal tiles, are among the most requested items for study from the archive.
Upon request, NASA lends specific components to researchers and educational institutes for analysis. In addition to NASA field centers and aerospace companies, program participants include Caterpillar, the Colorado School of Mines and Ohio State University.
By understanding the dynamics of flight and how specific parts of Columbia were impacted, the hope is engineers will be able to design safer ships in the future.
The collection includes more than 84,000 individual pieces, most of which are cataloged and boxed. A handful of materials and structures — a tire, a wing panel, pieces of tile — are on display in the front part of a 7,000-square-foot room inside the Vehicle Assembly Building where the archive is housed.
"Sometimes I walk into the room, especially if I'm alone, and it comes back, some of the emotions, some of the feeling, some of the memories," Ciannilli said. "I lived the recovery operation in Texas, so you have these moments where you flash back."
"Some days are a little bit more introspective and difficult, but I really counter that with the fact that I've seen so much good come out of it. Every single tour engages in a conversation about safety," he said.
The Vehicle Assembly Building was once used to piece together space shuttles for flight, but it, like most of the Kennedy Space Center, is in the midst of a transition following the end of the shuttle program in 2011.
Only Columbia remains at the space center. Sister ships Discovery and Endeavour were relocated to museums, and Atlantis was transferred to Kennedy Space Center's privately operated visitors complex.
"We teach the story, show the effects of the accident and show the fixes that we put into place," Ciannilli said. "Columbia's mission was a mission of education and research. We try to continue that in their name."
Looking back: The Columbia shuttle tragedy
Columbia's fallen crewThe space shuttle Columbia's crew members pose for a group photo. From left, front row: commander Rick Husband, Kalpana Chawla, pilot William McCool. Back row: David Brown, Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson and Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.
Columbia was destroyed on Feb. 1, 2003, during its return to Earth, because of a hole in its wing that allowed in super-hot atmospheric gases. (NASA via AP)
The launchSpace shutle Columbia launches on mission STS-107 on Jan. 16, 2003. STS-107 was the 28th flight of the orbiter Columbia and the 113th flight overall in NASA's shuttle program. Unlike most of the shuttle missions of the time, Columbia was not headed for the International Space Station. Rather, the mission's purpose was to conduct scores of science experiments, ranging from studies of atmospheric phenomena to the effects of weightlessness on roundworms. (NASA)
Looking down on EarthEarth is seen from the aft flight deck of the space shuttle Columbia on Jan. 22, 2003. The shuttle's crew members could see the wide Earth below, but they couldn't see the fatal damage that investigators concluded was done to the edge of the shuttle's left wing by a piece of flying foam insulation during the launch. (NASA)
Recovered from the debrisThis picture of Columbia's crew members was on a roll of unprocessed film recovered from the debris after the shuttle's disintegration. The crew members strike a "flying" pose for their traditional in-flight crew portrait in the Spacehab research module. From left (bottom row), wearing red shirts to signify their shift’s color, are Kalpana Chawla, commander Rick Husband, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon. From left (top row), wearing blue shirts, are David Brown, William McCool and Michael Anderson. (NASA)
Prelude to disasterThe space shuttle Columbia passes over the Owens Valley Radio Observatory north of Bishop, Calif., at 5:54 a.m. PST on Feb. 1, 2003. The camera is pointed north, and the shuttle is passing from west to east, from the left to the right side of the photo. Minutes after this picture was taken, the shuttle broke apart over Texas, killing all seven astronauts. (Gene Blevins / Los Angeles Daily News via AP)
Tragedy strikesDebris from the space shuttle Columbia streaks across the sky over Tyler, Texas, on Feb. 1, 2003. Columbia broke apart in flames 200,000 feet over Texas, killing the crew just minutes before they were to glide to a landing in Florida. (Scott Lieberman / AP)
Televised catastropheDaren Richards, right, tells his 7-year-old daughter Tess about the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia while they shop at a Las Vegas Costco store on Feb. 1, 2003. Coverage of the tragedy is displayed on the television sets at left. (K.M. Cannon / Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP)
Trail of debrisSmoke rises from a small brush fire started by a falling piece of debris from the space shuttle Columbia outside Athens, Texas. Thousands of pieces fell to Earth after the shuttle broke apart in the skies over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003. (Jeff Mitchell / Reuters)
Expanding the searchSearchers pass a makeshift memorial while looking for debris from the space shuttle Columbia on Feb. 2, 2003, outside Hemphill, Texas. The memorial marks the spot where remains of an astronaut were found. (David J. Phillip / AP)
Mourning a hometown heroThe mother of a schoolmate of Indian-born astronaut Kalpana Chawla weeps in front of a picture adorned with marigolds during a memorial held at Kalpana's high school in her hometown of Karnal, India, on Feb. 2, 2003. While Chawla moved from Karnal more than two decades earlier, she remained a hero to the people who followed her career at NASA - a career that ended with the space shuttle catastrophe. (Elizabeth Dalziel / AP)
Roadside memorialKeegan Green, 8, is comforted by her mother Amy Green as they view debris believed to be from the space shuttle Columbia on a rural road west of Nacogdoches, Texas, on Feb. 3, 2003. (LM Otero / AP)
Paying tributePresident George W. Bush bows his head in prayer with family members of the astronauts from the space shuttle Columbia during a memorial service on Feb. 4, 2003, at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Relatives of astronaut William McCool are to the left of the president; family members of astronaut Rick Husband are to the right of the president. (Larry Downing / Reuters)
The long yellow lineVolunteers and investigators assemble to search a dense section of woods for debris from the space shuttle Columbia near Hemphill, Texas, on Feb. 9, 2003. (Rick Bowmer / AP)
Reconstructing the ColumbiaIn the RLV Hangar at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the floor grid is dotted with pieces of Columbia debris on March 13, 2003. The Columbia Reconstruction Project Team arranged the recovered pieces of the orbiter as part of the investigation into the accident that caused the destruction of Columbia and the loss of its crew. (NASA via Reuters)
Remembering those lostA wreath placed by NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale and other NASA senior management is seen in front of the space shuttle Columbia memorial on Jan. 31, 2008, at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The wreath-laying ceremony was part of NASA's Day of Remembrance. Wreaths were laid in the memory of those men and women who lost their lives in the course of space exploration, including the astronaut crews of Columbia, Challenger and Apollo 1. (Bill Ingalls / NASA via AP)
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