Timeline of tragedy: The Columbia disaster
For seven months after the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over East Texas on Feb. 1, Orlando Sentinel Space Editor Michael Cabbage provided readers with a steady stream of exclusive stories about why the shuttle broke up, the progress of the investigation and how the event exposed serious weaknesses in the "safety culture" of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
-- shuttle commander Rick Husband, midway through re-entry
Plunging back to Earth after a 16-day science mission, the shuttle Columbia streaked through orbital darkness at 5 miles per second, fast enough to fly from Chicago to New York in two and a half minutes and to circle the entire planet in an hour and a half. For Columbia's seven-member crew, the only hint of the shuttle's enormous velocity was the smooth clockwork passage of entire continents far below.
Commander Rick Husband knew the slow-motion view was misleading, a trick of perspective and the lack of anything nearby to measure against the craft's swift passage. He knew the 117-ton shuttle actually was moving through space eight times faster than the bullet from an assault rifle, fast enough to fly the length of 84 football fields in a single heartbeat.
And Husband knew that in the next 15 minutes, the shuttle would shed the bulk of that unimaginable speed over the southwestern United States, enduring 3,000-degree temperatures as atmospheric friction converted forward motion into a hellish blaze of thermal energy. It had taken nearly 4 million pounds of rocket fuel to boost Columbia and its crew into orbital velocity. Now the astronauts were about to slam on the brakes.
For Husband, a devout Christian who put God and family ahead of his work as an astronaut, flying this amazing machine home from space was a near-religious experience in its own right, one he couldn't wait to share with family and friends gathered at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He had served as pilot on a previous shuttle flight, but this was his first as commander, and in the world of shuttle operations, it's the commander who actually lands the spacecraft.
He relished the opportunity. But his life as an astronaut took a back seat to his deep faith in God. Before blasting off on his second spaceflight as commander of Columbia, he videotaped 34 Bible lessons for his two kids, one each for the 17 days he would be away from home.
Looking over his cockpit instruments as he prepared Columbia for entry, the 45-year-old Air Force colonel chatted easily with his crewmates, coming across more as an older brother than as the skipper of a $3 billion spacecraft. But underneath the friendly camaraderie was the steady hand of a commander at ease with leadership and life-or-death responsibility.
It was 8:44 a.m. on Feb. 1, 2003, and Columbia was descending through 400,000 feet northwest of Hawaii.
"OK, we're just past EI," Husband told his crewmates, marking when Columbia, flying wings level, its nose tilted up 40 degrees, finally fell into the discernible atmosphere.
He was referring to "entry interface," the moment the shuttle descended through an altitude of 76 miles. At that altitude -- 11 times higher than a typical passenger jet flies -- the atmosphere is still a vacuum in the everyday sense of the word. But enough atoms and molecules are present to begin having a noticeable effect on a vehicle plowing through them at 25 times the speed of sound.
Wearing bulky, bright- orange pressure suits, Husband, rookie pilot William "Willie" McCool, flight engineer Kalpana Chawla (pronounced KULP-nah CHAV-lah), and Navy physician-astronaut Laurel Clark were strapped into their seats on Columbia's cramped flight deck, working through the final entries on a long checklist.
The shuttle's flight computers, each one taking in navigation data and plugging the numbers into long strings of equations, were doing the actual flying. Husband wouldn't take over manual control until the orbiter was on final approach, 50,000 feet above Kennedy.
Husband was in the front left seat, the command position aboard any aircraft, with McCool to his right on the other side of a switch-studded instrument console. Chawla, a native of India, was a veteran of one previous shuttle flight and an accomplished pilot. Something of a legend in her hometown of Karnal in the Indian state of Punjab, Chawla was a role model in a country where less than half the women were literate. She sat directly behind the central console, calling out and double-checking re-entry tasks. Clark was seated to Chawla's right, almost touching shoulders with the diminutive flight engineer.
Strapped into seats on the split-level crew cabin's lower deck were payload commander Michael Anderson, another shuttle veteran and one of only a handful of African-American astronauts at NASA; physician-astronaut David Brown, a former circus acrobat, jet pilot and amateur videographer; and fighter pilot Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli to fly in space.
They were listening in a half-hour earlier as Husband counted down to de-orbit ignition, when Columbia's flight computers fired up the shuttle's twin braking rockets as the spacecraft flew upside down and backwards 170 miles above the central Indian Ocean. The two-minute 38-second rocket firing slowed the shuttle by just 176 mph. But that small decrease was just enough to lower the far side of Columbia's orbit deep into the atmosphere above Florida's east coast.
For the first half hour of re-entry, Columbia and its crew simply fell through the black void of space on a precisely plotted course toward a runway on the other side of the planet. But now, finally back in the discernible atmosphere, things were about to get interesting.
For McCool, an accomplished Navy carrier pilot and father of three who brought a boyish enthusiasm to Columbia's flight deck, entry interface was a long-anticipated milestone. Veteran astronauts had told him to expect a spectacular light show. Right on cue, the inky blackness outside his cockpit windows began giving way to a faint salmon glow.
At first, the effect was so subtle he wasn't sure it was really there.