TV Review: 'Seconds from Disaster: Columbia's Last Flight'
A close-up view of the Space Shuttle Columbia as it orbits Earth in National Geographic Channel's "Seconds from Disaster: Columbia's Last Flight."
Credit: National Geographic Channel.

The National Geographic Channel will pick apart the steps and missteps that led up to the NASA's Columbia tragedy, which killed seven astronauts and destroyed one orbiter, tonight during a one-hour program highlighting the disaster.

Using reenactments, computer graphics and a veritable mountain of research and investigation results, "Seconds to Disaster: Columbia's Last Flight " recreates the final minutes before the space shuttle Columbia broke apart during reentry and offers an in-depth look at the disaster's causes. The program is part of an ongoing series that traces the cause of natural and manmade disasters.

In a way, "Columbia's Last Flight" picks up where an earlier documentary - "Astronaut Diaries: Remembering the Columbia Shuttle Crew" - left off. Whereas the latter program paints an intimate portrait of the seven astronauts who made up Columbia's ill-fated STS-107 crew, "Last Flight" focuses on the mechanics of the mission, as well as the accident at launch that proved fatal at the spaceflight's end.

During Columbia's Jan. 16, 2003 launch, a chunk of insulating foam the size of a suitcase separated from the shuttle's external tank and struck the orbiter's left wing. While the incident, which engineers discovered after reviewing launch footage, did not affect the liftoff or subsequent orbital spaceflight, it did gouge a hole in the protective skin of Columbia's left wing leading edge.

That puncture allowed hot gases to penetrate Columbia's wing as it reentered the Earth's atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003, ultimately destroying the spacecraft and its crew. The accident grounded NASA's shuttle fleet for more than two years. The next shuttle flight, STS-114 aboard the Discovery orbiter, is slated to launch no earlier than July 13, 2005.

"Last Flight" follows not only those final moments of Columbia and its crew, but also the exhaustive search for wreckage and the months of investigation that followed.

Everything from the anxiety of mission controllers - most of whom appear in archival footage - described by spaceflight experts and astronauts, to a reenactment of STS-107 commander Rick Husband fighting for control of the orbiter as it breaks apart offer a poignant view of how NASA faces disaster. But much of the human impact from "Last Flight" comes from STS-107 family members, such as Jon Clark - husband to STS-107 mission specialist Laurel Clark.

"There were several people who made great, erroneous errors," Jon Clark says in "Last Flight." "You've got to look at those errors and rectify them. That is my hope for human spaceflight."

While "Last Flight" seems to speed through the five months of investigations, tests and more tests by NASA and other investigators to identify the root causes of the Columbia accident, it does highlight the space agency's non-mechanical failings, such as a bogged-down culture that suffered from safety "blind spots."

But had NASA officials fully known at the time that the damage sustained by Columbia at launch could prove fatal, they would not have risked atmospheric reentry, experts explain.

"We would have done something," says retired U.S. Navy Adm. Hal Gehman, who led the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, in "Last Flight."

Seconds to Disaster: Columbia's Last Flight airs at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel. Check local listings.