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The space shuttle Columbia broke apart and burned up while reentering Earth’s atmosphere over Texas on February 1, 2003. The entire seven-member crew was killed as they returned to Earth after completing a series of scientific experiments. Investigation of the disaster pointed to structural failure of the heat-shielding system for the shuttle’s left wing. Sensors inside the wing recorded unusually high temperatures just before NASA lost contact with the shuttle. The investigation determined that the wing was damaged during liftoff when it was struck by a piece of insulation foam from the external fuel tank, opening a hole in the left wing. On reentry, superheated gases in the atmosphere penetrated the left wing, dooming the craft and the crew.

The space shuttle fleet was grounded until July 2005, when the shuttle Discovery returned to space. However, during the launch of Discovery a chunk of insulation foam broke off again from the external fuel tank, despite a more than two-year and nearly $1-billion effort to prevent a recurrence of the problem. Although the Discovery appeared to be undamaged, NASA suspended further shuttle flights until the foam problem could be studied further. Discovery returned to orbit in July 2006, when it docked with the International Space Station.

Seven astronauts were killed when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart and burned up while reentering Earth’s atmosphere on February 1, 2003. Crew members were left to right, front row: Rick Husband, Kalpana Chawla, William McCool; second row: David Brown, Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson, Ilan Ramon.

The Atlantis mission in September 2006 marked the start of more regular shuttle flights following the loss of Columbia. Atlantis returned to the International Space Station to add new solar panels to the station, the first major construction on the ISS since the Columbia disaster. The crew successfully installed the huge new array, which will help power planned research modules to be added on future missions. Despite some concerns over debris seen floating near the shuttle in space, Atlantis was apparently undamaged and landed safely in Florida.


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