It's been exactly 20 years since the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it returned to Earth, killing all seven astronauts on board: commander Rick Husband, pilot Willie McCool, mission specialists Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson, David Brown and payload specialist Ilan Ramon of Israel.
Their mission — the 28th flight for Columbia, which became NASA's first shuttle to fly in space some two decades earlier — was focused on research on physical, life and space sciences. The crew spent their 16 days in space conducting some 80 experiments before preparing to return to Florida's Kennedy Space Center on the morning of Feb. 1, 2003.
Instead, the shuttle broke apart over northeast Texas, near Dallas, shortly after reentering Earth's atmosphere and minutes before it was due to land.
Temperature and tire pressure readings from the left side of the shuttle vanished, Mission Control lost contact with the crew and Texas residents saw streaks of smoke in the sky as debris began falling to the ground.
Pam Melroy, NASA's deputy administrator and an astronaut who helped lead part of the Columbia investigation, told Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep that she remembers that day: She was in Florida getting ready to greet the crew.
"The space shuttle is coming back through the Earth's atmosphere at Mach 25, and so it's going to arrive within a second of when it's predicted," she recalled. "And so it was a moment where we all looked around and said, 'How could this be happening? The space shuttle isn't here.' And that's when we realized it wasn't coming back."
An investigation blamed physical and cultural problems
Over the next few weeks, NASA recovered thousands of pieces of debris, including the crew members' remains, across parts of Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana.
And an investigation board released a report later that year detailing the physical and cultural problems behind the disaster.
A piece of foam insulation had broken off the shuttle's propellant tank and hit the edge of its left wing just over a minute into its Jan. 16 launch, which was captured on camera. But the exact location and extent of the damage was not clearly visible to engineers, and NASA management reportedly did not address their concerns during the shuttle's time in space because they believed little could be done about it.
The report found that a hole on the left wing allowed atmospheric gasses to enter the shuttle during its reentry, which caused it to overheat and break apart. It said there were things NASA could have done, like having the crew repair the wing damage or rescuing them from the shuttle.
It also blamed "cultural traits and organizational practices" for minimizing safety issues over the years, as well as low funding and strict scheduling. Investigators called on NASA to be more proactive in its efforts and replace the shuttle with a new system, as well as for more government support.
Melroy says Columbia was top of mind when she commanded a mission to the International Space Station in 2007, especially because she had been part of the 2003 investigation, looking at crew training, equipment and procedures.
"I was very focused on doing everything in my power to use that learning to protect the crew in case of a mishap," she said. "And I think all commanders feel that way, but I know it was very much on my mind throughout the whole mission to use that knowledge and ensure that the crew was as safe as possible. Fortunately, I didn't have to."
NASA suspended space shuttle flights for two years after the Columbia tragedy and went on to retire the space shuttle program altogether in 2011.
NASA says lessons from the past shape its future goals
Melroy says the Columbia disaster had a substantial impact on NASA, as did two other major disasters: the Apollo 1, which caught fire during a pre-launch test in 1967, and the Challenger, which exploded seconds after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986. She thinks the agency "evolved more" after each of those incidents.
"If people died for this knowledge, we're going to learn from it," she said. "And I think that was the first step. But beyond that, the key lesson that we learned from Columbia was around schedule pressure but also around organizational silence — making sure that voices are heard inside the agency that have concerns about safety and making sure that those concerns get elevated to the right decision-makers."
Evelyn Husband Thompson, the wife of Columbia's commander, spoke on behalf of family members, according to HPM.
"In the past twenty years, the Columbia families have had celebrations, and sorrow, and life experiences," she said. "One of us became a parent, and some of us are now grandparents."
NASA is now preparing for a new era of spaceflight, hoping its Artemis mission will put the first woman and first person of color on the lunar surface by 2025.
Will lessons learned from tragedies like Columbia play a role in those efforts?
"Absolutely," Melroy says. "We are very proud of the lessons that we've learned and we're incorporating them now."
The audio for this story was produced by Ziad Buchh and Mansee Khurana, and edited by Jan Johnson.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Twenty years ago today, silence told NASA that something was very wrong. As heard in a 2003 NPR report, Mission Control called out to the Shuttle Columbia and heard nothing back.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Columbia, Houston, comm check. Columbia, Houston, UHF comm check.
INSKEEP: The shuttle was returning back to Florida when it came apart over Texas. What looked like falling stars blazed across a blue sky. Those lost were Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, Dave Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon. Pam Melroy was part of the shuttle program then, an astronaut who also helped to lead one part of the Columbia investigation. Welcome to the program.
PAM MELROY: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: What was that moment like for you?
MELROY: Well, it was a very difficult moment for all of us. Personally, I was in Florida getting ready to greet the crew and help them off the shuttle. And, of course, the space shuttle is coming back through the earth's atmosphere at Mach 25. And so it's going to arrive within a second of when it's predicted. And so it was a moment where we all looked around and said, how could this be happening? The space shuttle isn't here. And that's when we realized it wasn't coming back.
INSKEEP: This must be one of those things where you know death is possible. You know tragedy is possible. And yet you don't really expect it at all.
MELROY: No. I would say we really didn't. I certainly didn't. It took me a little bit of time to process it. Fortunately, we had some people. Bob Cabana, who's the head of the flight operations, had been through Challenger, and he knew right away, and he was able to direct us quickly to react and do the things that we'd been trained to do for a mishap. But it was very shocking. And I think it was a very tragic time for the agency.
INSKEEP: I want people to know that you went up into space before this disaster and also went back on the Shuttle Discovery after in 2007. How much was Columbia on your mind when you went back?
MELROY: You know, it was very much on my mind because I had participated in the part of the investigation that looked at, you know, the crew training, the crew equipment, the crew procedures and all the things that we could learn for future survivability. You know, I felt very strongly, as the commander of that mission, that I was very focused on doing everything in my power to use that learning to protect the crew in case of a mishap. And I think all commanders feel that way. But I know it was very much on my mind throughout the whole mission to use that knowledge and ensure that the crew was as safe as possible. Fortunately, I didn't have to.
INSKEEP: Because you're thinking not only of your own safety but the safety of everyone on board as the commander, I suppose.
MELROY: That's right.
INSKEEP: How did this disaster change NASA, if at all?
MELROY: Oh, I think it had a substantial impact. It's very interesting. If you look at the history of the mishaps at NASA - the Apollo 1, the Challenger and the Columbia mishaps. You know, we had a day of remembrance, which we do once a year, to honor the legacy of all those crews and also remember the lessons that we learned. And I think the agency evolved more with each mishap - more transparent. I think in each case, we embraced the attitude that, hey, we're going to learn everything that we can from this. If people died for this knowledge, we're going to learn from it. And I think that was, you know, the first step. But beyond that, the key lesson that we learned from Columbia was around schedule pressure, but also around organizational silence, making sure that voices are heard inside the agency that have concerns about safety and making sure that those concerns get elevated to the right decision-makers.
INSKEEP: In the few seconds that we have left, do you think that knowledge that people died for will benefit NASA and this country as NASA works to send astronauts back to the moon?
MELROY: Absolutely. We are very proud of the lessons that we've learned, and we're incorporating them now.
INSKEEP: NASA deputy administrator Pam Melroy, thanks for your time. Really appreciate it.
MELROY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.