The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors.

-George W. Bush

Image: Britannica

On the first of February, 2003, space shuttle Columbia broke up as it returned to Earth, killing the seven astronauts on board. NASA suspended space shuttle flights for more than two years as it investigated the disaster.

An investigation board determined that a large piece of foam fell from the shuttle’s external tank and breached the spacecraft wing. The Columbia mission was the second space shuttle disaster after Challenger, which saw a catastrophic failure during launch in 1986. The Columbia disaster directly led to the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in 2011.

The search for debris took weeks. NASA eventually recovered 84,000 pieces, representing nearly 40 percent of Columbia. Among them were the crew remains, which were identified with DNA. Much later, in 2008, NASA released a crew survival report detailing the Columbia crew’s last few minutes. Twelve minutes after launch, the mission controller received a phone call. The caller said a television network was showing video of the shuttle breaking up in the sky.

The astronauts probably survived the initial breakup of Columbia, but lost consciousness in seconds after the cabin lost pressure. The crew died as the shuttle disintegrated.