February 1, 2003 was a sunny day. It was the perfect day for the Columbia shuttle return to earth. Everyone at NASA was excited for their return because the shuttle would bring back a lot of useful information from the 16 days mission. No one suspected tragedy will happen.
At around 9am, the shuttle lost contact with NASA. The mission controllers thought it was a temporary problem because of the shuttle reentry into the atmosphere and also the temperature sensors on the inboard and outboard elevons (A control surface on an airplane that combines the functions of an elevator and an aileron.) on the left wing had stopped functioning minutes before. NASA start to recognize something unusual happened when several 911 calls were made by the residents in Texas, Arkansas and the Louisiana area. The space shuttle Columbia and her seven crewmembers were lost.
Immediately after losing of the shuttle and the seven crewmembers, NASA stopped all shuttle operations at Kennedy Space Center. They collected all the remains piece of the Columbia shuttle and grid on the floor of the Reusable Launch Vehicle Hangar. The Columbia Reconstruction Project Team attempted to reconstruct the bottom of the orbiter as part of the investigation into the accident. The engineers found that a 20-inch piece of hardened insulation foam breaking off the main fuel tank and hitting the shuttle’s left wing during the launch on January 16th. They asked the top shuttle managers for outside agency assistance, but the request was denied. This is because the shuttle managers concluded that there was no safety concern due to the foam’s impact and decided to let the mission continue.
Other possible causes were pilot mistake and space debris. After investigations continued in the next few weeks, some molten aluminum debris from the shuttle’s wing structure, as well as molten steel debris, had been found. When the engineers eliminated the other possibilities, they began to focus on the foam from the external tank only.
When the shuttle reenters the atmosphere, the temperature on its surface can reach nearly 1649oC. So the Thermal Protection System (Various materials applied to the outer structure protect the orbiter from excessive heat) on the shuttle is critical. There are four different materials in the space shuttles Thermal Protection System (TPS)....