By William M. Welch @williammwelch USA TODAY
Ten years ago Friday, a crowd of several hundred people gathered at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the anticipated landing of space shuttle Columbia and its crew of seven following 16 days in space. The craft and its occupants never arrived.
"All of a sudden we realized things were not as they were supposed to be,'' recalls Wayne Hale, retired shuttle program manager. "We were in a state of shock, quite frankly.''
Family members of the crew of five men and two women were hustled into vans and whisked to private quarters, where they were given the tragic news as scientists, engineers and managers of NASA pored through data chronicling the catastrophic end of Columbia and its mission, code-named STS-107.
NASA is marking the anniversary with low-key ceremonies in Florida and Texas honoring the crew of Columbia as well as those who died in the Jan. 28, 1986, Challenger shuttle explosion and earlier lost astronauts.
Among those participating are some of the crew family members who were at Kennedy on Feb. 1, 2003. Lost were Commander Rick Husband, co-pilot William McCool, specialists Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson, David Brown, and Ilan Ramon, an Israeli fighter pilot.
The shuttle broke apart as it re-entered the atmosphere and streaked across the nation's skies. Parts of the shattered spacecraft rained down across broad expanses, much of it centered over Hemphill, Texas.
Days later, Milt Heflin, then the chief flight director and now associate director of the Johnson Space Center, walked into a hangar at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. Bright xenon lights illuminated the "busted, twisted, scorched hardware.'' It was, he recalls, "a morgue of high-speed technology.''
The disaster was attributed to a piece of foam that fell from the external rocket tank on launch, opening a hole in a shuttle wing that caused the craft to rip apart on re-entry.
The accident investigation spread blame broadly, citing management and organizational deficiencies. Among them: a culture that didn't like to hear safety concerns from lower-level engineers.
"In the 10 years since the Columbia investigation, the accident report has become a landmark study in organizational causes of accidents,'' Hale says. "That's the enduring legacy. We learned ... cultural and management lessons.''
President Obama issued a statement marking the anniversary. "Ten years ago, seven brave astronauts gave their lives in the name of exploration when America's first flight-ready space shuttle, Columbia, failed to return safely to Earth,'' he said.
"Space exploration and the sacrifice these pioneers made benefits us all. Today, we honor their lives and recommit ourselves to living up to their shining example.''
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said the accident renewed the agency's commitment to mission safety.
"After the tragedy of Columbia, we not only returned to flight, we established policies and procedures to make our human spaceflight program safer than ever,'' Bolden said. "Exploration will never be without risk, but we continue to work to ensure that when humans travel to space, nothing has been left undone to make them as safe as possible.''
The shuttle fleet was grounded and although missions resumed in 2005, President George W. Bush decided to wind down the shuttle program. The last shuttle flew in 2011, and the remaining shuttles have become museum pieces.