Hail Columbia

by Chris Bergin

Three years ago today saw the loss of the Space Shuttle orbiter Columbia and her crew during re-entry at the end of mission STS-107.

While the names of the seven brave astronauts that perished during re-entry will be honoured today, Columbia’s loss – despite being a ‘machine’ – continues to be grieved alongside her fallen crew.
The flagship of the NASA shuttle fleet – and arguably the best known spaceship ever to have been built – was hailed as one of the fallen heroes during Robert Crippen’s memorial speech, which portrayed rarely seen emotions for a vehicle that has forever earned herself a place in history.

Crippen was alongside John Young on board Columbia for the test flight on STS-1. The bond between Crippen and Columbia remained solid 22 years later when Crippen choose to pay tribute to the fallen orbiter.

‘I’m sure that Columbia which had travelled millions of miles, and made that fiery re-entry 27 times before, struggled mightily in those last moments to bring her crew home safely once again,’ said Crippen. ‘She wasn’t successful.

‘Columbia was a fine ship. Many said she was old and past her prime, still she had only lived barely a quarter of her design life. In years she was only 22. Columbia had a great many missions ahead of her, she along with the crew, had her life, snuffed out, in her prime.’

Known as the most ‘steady’ of the orbiters on the pad by engineers that worked with her, Columbia paved the way for improvements to be made throughout the fleet during the four test flights she undertook during the early 1980s.

Her legacy continues, with new inspection techniques being implemented into checking orbiter TPS (Thermal Protection System) for debris strikes – one of which was responsible for the loss of Columbia during re-entry on STS-107.

Improvements to the External Tanks (ET) continue to be made to avoid foam liberation striking the orbiter during the ride uphill.

But it was her final moments that solidify the love people have for Columbia, as she fought past the expected boundaries of her capabilities, as super-hot gases on re-entry breached through the hole created by a debris strike, ripping her apart from the inside.

‘It is an engineering mystery to how those last few minutes and seconds transpired,’ said one United Space Alliance engineer, who wished not to be named in this article. ‘Take the example of the potential concern the two gap fillers (two small slices of fabric) had on aerodynamic changes to the entry interface profile (during STS-114), yet Columbia somehow fought with a whole wing totally misshaped and collapsing.

‘There is still some debate to what happened with a number of ‘steering’ commands and her continued fight to correct the drag. Columbia did surpass herself during those final moments. The way she tried to correct and keep flying was past her design and her programming. She was amazing and I’m so very proud of her.

‘There’s enough engineers here who went to Texas to bring her home and there’s enough here that have had a quiet moment with her remains to say thank you and goodbye.’

Another engineer spoke about the impact of the day Columbia’s debris was brought into the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for storage.

‘It was fitting she finally made her last journey home, for here (KSC) is home for the orbiters,’ he said. ‘The loss of the STS-107 crew was a national tragedy, but the loss of Columbia deserves the same level of grief.

‘Columbia’s debris didn’t register with me for a while. We’re so used to this huge spacecraft being in an OPF (Orbiter Processing Facility), this larger than life, beautiful ship that so many of us spent so much time and effort on. She was so calm and graceful until she was ready for launch. Then she’d be hissing and making all manner of rude noises on the pad as she built up to the explosive power of launch.

‘A larger than life character, part of the NASA family, as are all the orbiters, but she was something special.’

Confirmation of her place as part of the fallen crew became a fitting tribute from Crippen. One that should be remembered today as we pay tribute to the pioneers of space travel.

‘Just as her crew has, Columbia has left us quite a legacy. There’s heavy grief in our hearts, which will diminish with time – but it will never go away – and we won’t ever forget. Hail Rick, Willie, KC, Mike, Laurel, Dave and Ilan. Hail Columbia.’

To view videos paying tribute to Columbia and her crew, click here:

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