The Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster (VIDEO)

Photo: cbsnews

As most of the residents of northern Texas were on their morning commute at around 9 a.m. on February 1, 2003, they heard a loud boom and saw streaks of smoke in the sky. What they were seeing was the Columbia space shuttle attempting to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere more than 231,000 feet off the ground. As the shuttle traveled at approximately 23 times the speed of sound (est. 17,500mph), heat-resistant tiles that protect the wings from the intense heat caused by re-entering the atmosphere had been damaged or were missing completely. Because of this, the wing blew apart and led to a chain reaction which caused the entire space shuttle to disintegrate, killing all seven astronauts on board.

Debris from the explosion was scattered in more than 2,000 locations all over Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. The first reported debris began falling to the ground outside of Lubbock, Texas at 8:58 a.m. To make the situation even more devastating, a search helicopter that was tasked to help locate the falling debris crashed, killing both pilots on board.

When the Columbia launched on January 16th, a piece of foam insulation broke off off the propellant tank and collided with the shuttle’s left wing. Mission Control was aware of the incident thanks to cameras focused on the launch sequence, but they were unable to pinpoint the exact location and extent of the damage caused. During the two-week mission, the incident wasn’t addressed because NASA officials felt there was little they could do. However, an investigation board determined just a few months later that the deadly incident could have been avoided. Thier reports indicate that it would have been possible for the crew to potentially fix the issue, or at least could’ve been rescued by the space shuttle Atlantis that was scheduled to launch February 10th. Due to this horrible tragedy, the entire space shuttle program was grounded until July of 2005 when the Discovery was put into orbit.

Photo: abcnews