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Voices From Columbia's Last Spaceflight

By Stacey Shick
February 01, 2013 1:58 PM EST
Debris from the space shuttle Columbia streaks across the sky over Tyler, Texas, on Feb. 1, 2003.
Photographer: Dr. Scott Lieberman via AP Photo
Debris from the space shuttle Columbia streaks across the sky over Tyler, Texas, on Feb. 1, 2003.

Ten years ago, spaceflight had become so regular that the comings and goings of shuttles often went unnoticed outside the NASA community. But on the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, many Americans awoke to the realization that spaceflight will never be routine.

That morning, the return of the shuttle Columbia went horribly awry. The problem had started with its launch, when a piece of foam from the external fuel tank struck the spacecraft's left wing. Some of the heat-resistant tiles cracked, which allowed superheated gasses to destroy the shuttle on re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere. Seven astronauts died.

"We thought we were better than we were," Wayne Hale, a flight director for more than 40 shuttle missions, told Space.com this week. He added, "We thought we had a mature vehicle flying in a well-understood environment, and nothing could have been further from the truth than that." On the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's website, there are heartbreaking, spooky reminders of what it was like back then. Members of mission control answered questions from the public during the STS-107 mission, and their responses are still available for all to read.

Kevin Pitman, of Bridgend, U.K., asked: "Could you please tell me the thickness of the tiles that cover the shuttle, especially the heat shield?"

And Kirby Runyon, of Spring Arbor, Michigan, asked: "At what altitude does the shuttle begin to 'feel' the effects -- rapid deceleration and heating -- of re-entry?"

Some of the crew also answered questions while in flight, including mission specialist David Brown. Seven-year-old Sydney Cross of Williamsburg, Virginia, asked if Brown, as a doctor, would be able to help other astronauts if they had a stomachache in flight. Brown responded:

"The most important thing here in space is that we all look after each other as a crew, and if someone needs something or doesn't feel well, I think everyone looks after all the other people here on the shuttle." (Stacey Shick is an editor at Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)

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