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Final Moments of The Space Shuttle Columbia’s Crew


On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia met with a tragic end when it disintegrated during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. This was the second disaster of this caliber in the history of NASA’s space program, the first being the Challenger disaster in 1986. The seven-member crew of the Columbia, which included David M. Brown, Rick D. Husband, Laurel B. Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, William C. “Willie” McCool, and Ilan Ramon, had completed a successful research-based mission in outer space and were preparing to return to Earth when the shuttle broke apart. Despite their best efforts, the crew could not survive the catastrophic event and perished on their way back to the ground.

This disaster was caused by a small piece of insulation foam that came off and hit the left wing of the spacecraft during lift-off. Following the incident, NASA conducted a thorough investigation and released a 400-page report in 2008, which included 30 safety and procedural recommendations for future missions. Even though all of them were implemented, NASA decided to scrap the whole shuttle program in 2011.

During the mission, Commander Rick Husband was the only crew member involved in the final exchange with NASA. He responded to a call from mission control about odd thermal readings on the shuttle, and his last words were “Roger, uh,” before the comms went dark. Additionally, the crew members logged several messages during their mission, often describing the beauty and greatness of space, providing a bit of insight into their experiences and perspectives.

The Last Bits of Footage

What was in the last recorded video? The Columbia spacecraft had to perform a set of routine tasks before returning to Earth at an altitude of 500,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean. The footage shows crew members going through various mundane tasks and talking among themselves for approximately 13 minutes before the feeds were lost. The video features Willie McCool, Kalpana Chawla, and Laurel Clark, who were the last people on Earth to be seen or heard speaking. Commander Husband is also there, representing the Columbia in its final moments.

Mere minutes after the transmission ended, NASA detected abnormal thermal readings. The NASA officials on the ground quickly attempted to contact the Columbia to gather more information. At that moment, Commander Husband responded calmly, stating that they were working on the issue and checking the flight controller power. After a few more exchanges, the Columbia seemed to have lost pressure in both of its tires. Husband acknowledged the malfunction and uttered his last words: “And Houston, Roger, uh.” That was the last communication received from the Columbia.

The Lost Messages

During their mission, the crew of the Columbia left behind messages that have been preserved over time. One of the messages was written by Laurel Clark to her family, where she talks about eating in space, her poor eyesight, and some of the breathtaking views she witnessed while on her mission, including lightning spreading over the Pacific Ocean, the Aurora Australis lighting up the horizon, and the crescent moon setting over the Earth. She also mentioned seeing the vast plains of Africa, the dunes on Cape Horn, and rivers breaking through tall mountain passes.

Marianne Dyson has collected all the crew’s quotes from both before and during their mission, as well as statements from their family members and friends. Willie McCool was awestruck by the unbelievable colors, and David Brown expressed his love for Earth by stating that if he had been born in space, nothing would stop him from visiting our beautiful planet. While flying over Israel, Ilan Ramon, an Israeli-born astronaut, felt that the beauty of Earth was even more powerful due to the quiet that envelops space. He hoped that one day his home country would also know peace. The last words of these crew members speak volumes and should be celebrated, as they convey what space is like better than any scientific article or publication ever could.