January 16, 2003: The Space Shuttle Columbia takes off for mission STS-107
which would be its final one. Columbia disintegrated 16 days later on re-entry.
The seven-member crew died on 1 February 2003 when the Columbia orbiter disintegrated during reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board determined the failure was caused by a piece of foam that broke off during launch and damaged the thermal protection system components (reinforced carbon-carbon panels and thermal protection tiles) on the leading edge of the left wing of the orbiter. During re-entry the damaged wing slowly overheated and came apart, eventually leading to loss of control and disintegration of the vehicle.
Space Shuttle Columbia (NASA Orbiter Vehicle Designation: OV-102) was the first spaceworthy Space Shuttle in NASA’s orbital fleet. First launched on the STS-1 mission, the first of the Space Shuttle program, it completed 27 missions before disintegrating during re-entry on February 1, 2003 near the end of its 28th, STS-107. The destruction of the orbiter killed all those on board.
Had Columbia not been destroyed, it would have been fitted with the external airlock/docking adapter for STS-118, an International Space Station assembly mission, originally planned for November 2003. Columbia was scheduled for this mission due to Discovery being out of service for its Orbital Maintenance Down Period, and because the ISS assembly schedule could not be adhered to with only Endeavour and Atlantis.
Columbia’s career would have started to wind down after STS-118. It was to service the Hubble Space Telescope two more times, once in 2004, and again in 2005, but no more missions were planned for it again until 2009 when, on STS-144, it would retrieve the Hubble Space Telescope from orbit and bring it back to Earth.
Following the Columbia accident, NASA flew the STS-125 mission using Atlantis, combining the planned fourth and fifth servicing missions into one final visit to Hubble. Because of the expected retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet, the batteries and gyroscopes that keep the telescope pointed will eventually fail, which would result in its reentry and break-up in Earth’s atmosphere. A “Soft Capture Docking Mechanism”, based on the docking adapter that was to be used on the Orion spacecraft, was installed during the last servicing mission in anticipation of this event.
STS-107 Space Shuttle Columbia Launch On NASA TV