Space shuttle Columbia's last mission, known as STS-107, ended in disaster when the shuttle broke up as it returned to Earth on Feb. 1, 2003, killing all seven astronauts on board.
Tragedy struck when the crew were approximately 15 minutes away from their scheduled touchdown at Kennedy Space Center, according to NASA. The seven-member crew consisted of: Rick Husband, commander; Michael Anderson, payload commander; David Brown, mission specialist; Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; Laurel Clark, mission specialist; William McCool, pilot; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist from the Israeli Space Agency.
An investigation board determined that a large piece of foam fell from the shuttle's external tank during takeoff and struck the spacecraft's left wing. A hole left by the strike allowed atmospheric gases to enter the shuttle during re-entry, leading to loss of sensors and ultimately, Columbia itself.
We take a look at the ill-fated mission and remember those who lost their lives furthering the cause of exploration and scientific discovery.
Shuttle Columbia's STS-107 Crew: Walkout
The STS-107 crew heads for the Astrovan and a ride to Launch Pad 39A for liftoff on Jan. 16, 2003. From left to right are Payload Commander Michael Anderson, Mission Specialist David Brown, Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon, Mission Specialists Laurel Clark and Kalpana Chawla, Mission Commander Rick Husband and Pilot William "Willie" McCool. Ramon is the first astronaut from Israel to fly on a Shuttle.
Shuttle Columbia's STS-107 Crew: Walkout
The STS-107 crew smile and wave to onlookers as they make their way to Launch Pad 39A for liftoff on Jan. 16, 2003.
Space Shuttle Columbia soars through the blue Florida sky
Space Shuttle Columbia hurtles through a perfect blue Florida sky following. Liftoff of Columbia on mission STS-107 occurred on-time at 10:39 a.m. EST on Jan. 16, 2003.
During the STS-107 mission, the crew appears to 'fly' toward the camera in a group photo aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. On the bottom row (L to R) are astronauts Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; Rick D. Husband, mission commander; Laurel B. Clark, mission specialist; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist. In the top row (L to R) are astronauts David M. Brown, mission specialist; William C. McCool, pilot; and Michael P. Anderson, payload commander. On February 1, 2003, during re-entry, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over northern Texas with all seven crewmembers aboard. This picture survived on a roll of unprocessed film recovered by searchers from the debris.
Astronaut Michael Anderson checking procedures on STS-107
Astronaut Michael P. Anderson, STS-107 payload commander, holds a procedures checklist while working at the Combustion Module (CM-2) in the SPACEHAB Research Double Module (RDM) aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia.
Astronaut Michael P. Anderson getting mic'd up
Astronaut Michael P. Anderson, STS-107 payload commander, speaks into a portable microphone while working at the Combustion Module (CM-2) in the SPACEHAB Research Double Module (RDM) aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia.
Space Shuttle Columbia's view of Earth
This Earth view featuring the southeastern Mediterranean and northeast Africa/Middle East border was photographed by an STS-107 crewmember onboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. This picture was on a roll of unprocessed film later recovered by searchers from the debris.
Astronaut Laurel Clark enjoying the view
Astronaut Laurel B. Clark, STS-107 mission specialist, is pictured near overhead windows on the aft flight deck of the Space Shuttle Columbia
Astronaut Rick D. Husband on the flight deck
Astronaut Rick D. Husband, STS-107 mission commander, is pictured on the aft flight deck of the Space Shuttle Columbia.
Earthview of Sinai Peninsula
This Earth view featuring the Sinai Peninsula, Red Sea, Egypt, Nile River, and the Mediterranean was photographed by an STS-107 crewmember onboard the Space Shuttle Columbia.
Astronaut David M. Brown peers through the portal window
A fish-eye lens on a 35mm camera records astronaut David M. Brown, STS-107 mission specialist, as he peers through a portal window located on the overhead bulkhead in the SPACEHAB Research Double Module (RDM) aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia.
Astronaut Rick Husband at the control panels
Astronaut Rick D. Husband, STS-107 mission commander, is photographed near the control panels and windows on the aft flight deck of the Space Shuttle Columbia.
The 'toe' of Italy's boot shape as seen from Columbia
This view featuring the toe of the boot of Italy was photographed by an STS-107 crewmember onboard the Space Shuttle Columbia.
Ilan Ramon, STS-107 Payload Specialist at work on the flight deck
Ilan Ramon, STS-107 payload specialist representing the Israeli Space Agency, is pictured on the aft flight deck of the Space Shuttle Columbia.
Astronaut Laurel Clark Checks Experiment
Astronaut Laurel B. Clark, STS-107 mission specialist, conducts checks of the Yeast Cell Stress Under Microgravity (YSTRES) experiment in the Biopack glovebox on the mid-deck of the Space Shuttle Columbia.
Columbia space shuttle during re-entry
he view of the underside of Columbia during its entry from mission STS-107 on Feb. 1, 2003, as it passed by the Starfire Optical Range, Directed Energy Directorate, Air Force Research Laboratory, Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. The image was taken approximately 7:57 a.m. CST (8:57 a.m. EST, 1357 GMT). The image was received by NASA as part of the Columbia accident investigation.
Space Shuttle Columbia recovered debris
After the Columbia disaster, pieces of Columbia space shuttle debris are pictured here arranged in a hangar at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida, during the accident investigation in 2003. More than 82,000 pieces of debris from the Columbia disaster were recovered, approximately 38% of space shuttle Columbia.
Get the Space.com Newsletter
Breaking space news, the latest updates on rocket launches, skywatching events and more!
Daisy Dobrijevic joined Space.com in February 2022 having previously worked for our sister publication All About Space magazine as a staff writer. Before joining us, Daisy completed an editorial internship with the BBC Sky at Night Magazine and worked at the National Space Centre in Leicester, U.K., where she enjoyed communicating space science to the public. In 2021, Daisy completed a PhD in plant physiology and also holds a Master's in Environmental Science, she is currently based in Nottingham, U.K. Daisy is passionate about all things space, with a penchant for solar activity and space weather. She has a strong interest in astrotourism and loves nothing more than a good northern lights chase!