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Columbia's Last Flight

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It began on January 16 with a by-now predictable launch. Columbia blasted off from Cape Kennedy on the 113th space shuttle launch. It ended in a fiery explosion over Texas on February 1.

Columbia's STS-107 was a science-heavy mission, completing 80 experiments, including some badly needed medical ones. It had a relatively inexperienced crew flying as well, with four of the seven astronauts taking their first shuttle flight.

One of the mission specialists was Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-born person to go into space. Another was Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space. Six of the crew were married, and five had children. (Click here to see profiles of all seven crew members.)

Debris was spread over hundreds of miles, in eastern Texas and into Louisiana. A cloud of debris cut a wide swath out into the Gulf of Mexico. Hundreds of people reported finding parts of the wreckage.

Officials now know that just before the explosion, Columbia experienced a rapid rise in temperature and wind resistance and that this forced the shuttle's automatic pilot to make changes to its flight plan. Officials also know that the shuttle suffered damage to its left side. Whether this damage is connected to minor damage the shuttle suffered on launch day has yet to be confirmed. NASA officials, careful not to jump to any unsupported conclusions, said that no connection had been established.

Soon after this rise in temperature and wind resistance occurred, NASA's Kennedy Space Center lost contact with Columbia. Traveling at 12,000 mph, the shuttle then blew apart, sending bits and pieces flying in all directions.

Independent commissions have been formed to investigate the explosion and the events surrounding it. Some people either heading these commissions or who will be asked to contribute are the same people who helped with the investigation of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.

NASA officials, with President Bush and other government officials in firm agreement, said that the shuttle program was on hold only and that future flights would take place. It wasn't clear when. Space shuttle Endeavour was scheduled to launch on March 1. Still, unlike 1986, this time around, the sentiment was overwhelmingly in echoing the words of NASA's Shuttle Program Manager Ron Dittemore: "We will find the program, we fill fix it, and we will move on."

Graphics courtesy of ArtToday



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