(CNN) – Ten years ago today (Friday) streaks flew across the Texas sky, marking the end of America’s first space shuttle, and the lives of its crew.
On February 1st, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere.
The search for what’s left of the spacecraft ended, but the lessons learned and the memory of Columbia’s crew live on.
John Zarrella visits with the widow of Columbia’s commander and the man who preserves the shuttle’s debris.
Columbia was about 210 thousand feet up, sixteen minutes from landing when the spacecraft began coming apart. Unknown to the astronauts and the NASA team, the vehicle had been fatally damaged. A chunk of foam from the external tank had come off during liftoff and punctured the left wing. At the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Commander Rick husband’s wife Evelyn feared the worse.
“I remember looking up at the sky and thinking is that it? Is that the end of Rick’s life.”
Seven astronauts died that February morning ten years ago leaving behind family and friends. In an instant, Evelyn husband was a single mom with two young children. Without Rick, it was hard.
“God created families with a mom and a dad an so when Rick left and he was a great dad, just an amazing man, it was challenging to try and raise them as a single mom.”
There has been healing Evelyn says but it’s not done.
“It’s a lifelong process. I don’t think that pain ever completely goes away.”
Perhaps the greatest memorial to Columbia sits in that building across the water, on the 16th floor of the vehicle assembly building at the Kennedy Space Center. In here, 84 thousand pieces, 40 percent of the vehicle found so far. NASA and the families decided to preserve the debris and not entomb it so scientists and teachers could borrow it, study it, learn from it. Mike Ciannilli, in charge of debris preservation says this is also a place NASA workers come especially the young ones to feel why failure can’t be an option.
“When you actually walk amongst Columbia and you talk about the accident and you talk about the lessons learned and how you can do the best job you can do to help prevent this from ever happening again, that’s very powerful.”
There is no longer an active search for Columbia debris. But every once in awhile some is found. The last time was 2011. During a severe drought, Lake Nacogdoches in eastern Texas surrendered a tank from Columbia. As Ciannilli says, another piece returned home.
John Zarrella CNN at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.