Our Spaceflight Heritage: The legacy of STS-107
On Jan. 16, 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia (flight STS-107) lifted off from Launch Complex 39A, her crew was finally embarking on the mission they had waited five years to launch.
Originally slated to fly in May of 2000, changes in flight priorities for supply and assembly of the Space Station, along with a Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission also flown aboard Columbia, had shuffled the mission’s target date numerous times.
They had spent 16 days in space performing over 100 science experiments in the SpaceHab module in Columbia’s payload bay. Most of their findings were sent back to Houston.
As is well known, their doomed flight ended over Texas when Columbia broke up during re-entry on February 1, 2003. The crew had consisted of the following:
- Rick Husband, mission commander, on his second spaceflight after being the pilot on STS-96. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force prior to joining NASA. He loved to ski both on water and on snow.
- Pilot William “Willie” McCool, also a Commander in the U.S. Navy, was making his first spaceflight. Willie enjoyed many outdoor activities and a good game of chess.
- Mission specialist 1 David Brown, a U.S. Navy Captain having served as a flight surgeon prior to flying the A-6E Intruder. This was his first spaceflight.
- Mission specialist 2 Kalpana Chawla was on her second spaceflight, both aboard Columbia. When not busy at NASA, she enjoyed flying gliders and single and multi-engine land and water aircraft.
- Mission specialist 3 Michael Anderson, a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force, was making his second spaceflight having flown on the eighth Shuttle–Mir Program docking mission, STS-89. Another chess player, he also enjoyed playing tennis.
- Mission specialist 4 Laurel Clark, another spaceflight rookie, was a medical doctor by trade and an adrenalin junkie in her spare time enjoying scuba diving, hiking, camping, biking, and parachuting.
- Payload specialist Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, was a Colonel in the Israeli Air Force. Like his commander, he loved to snow ski. They all loved being astronauts and worked very hard in order to get their chance to fly in space.
All of the crew were humbled to be part of such a select group of people who went on to fly in space. Perhaps David Brown summed it up best in a preflight interview for STS-107:
But I absolutely couldn’t identify with the people who were astronauts. I thought they were movie stars. And I just thought I was kind of a normal kid. And so I couldn’t see a path how a normal kid could ever get to be one of these people that I just couldn’t identify with. And so, while I would’ve said, “Hey, this is like the coolest thing you could possibly do,” it really wasn’t something that I ever thought that I would end up doing.
NASA’s policies and attitudes
Like the Apollo 1 and Challenger tragedies before them, investigations once again revealed deficiencies in NASA’s policies and attitudes that if they had been resolved prior to the accidents, might have prevented them.
The shuttle was once again grounded while changes were implemented both in procedures and in equipment. The Space Shuttle Program was also given an “end of life” timeline in such that it would fly to finish the assembly of the International Space Station (ISS) before being retired.
As a result, NASA began working with private space companies, such as SpaceX, Boeing, and Orbital ATK, to provide cargo and eventually crew rotation flights to the ISS.
Today, despite launch failures, cargo flights to the ISS are becoming more routine and crewed commercial flights are slated to begin in 2018.
In the interim, NASA astronauts have been traveling to the ISS via the Russian Soyuz capsule. The seats have increased steadily in price, most recently costing NASA over $60 million for a seat.
NASA also began looking to travel out of low-Earth orbit for the first time since 1972 when Apollo 17 flew the last manned mission to the Moon. Today they are getting closer to that goal with the continued development of a new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and a new deep space capsule, dubbed Orion, which flew its first unmanned test flight in December 2014.
The first flight of the SLS, currently slated for late 2018, will be an unmanned flight taking the Orion capsule on a trip to the Moon and back.