TEXAS, USA — On Jan. 16, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia took off on a scientific mission with seven astronauts on board.
Sixteen days later, WFAA captured live footage of it over Texas as it was returning.
“There it goes. The bright light you see obviously some of the heat-resistant material lighting up on the shuttle,” said Brad Watson, a former WFAA reporter.
The shuttle was 16 minutes away from landing in Florida. It never made it. Instead, what our cameras captured was the shuttle exploding.
“It looks like a normal re-entry because the shuttle would normally light up because of the heat of re-entry but then if you notice here it looks like pieces of the shuttle coming off,” said Watson.
Inside Houston’s Mission Control, they realized something had gone wrong.
”FYI, I’ve lost four temperature transducers on the left side of the vehicle,” said a NASA employee.
In other words, the heat sensors were going off. Joe Gutheinz is a former NASA investigator with knowledge of the Columbia investigation.
”What was remarkable in this particular case was that the first indication that there was a problem, with respect to Columbia, was when the temperature transducers were not operating at 100 percent,” said Joe Gutheinz, NASA investigator.
Back inside Mission Control, they repeatedly tried to reach the astronauts but lost contact.
According to NASA, the last transmission from Col. Rick Husband minutes before his final words was “Roger uh.”
And then silence.
“It’s believed that there were 60 to 90 seconds that existed where the astronauts would have been aware that there was something going wrong,” said Gutheinz.
NASA declared a state of emergency and sent search and rescue crews to East Texas when parts of the shuttle began raining down. Pieces fell over 2,000 square miles.
Matt Orwig was the U.S. Attorney over the Eastern District of Texas and helped lead the investigation. He says it was considered the largest crime and recovery scene in U.S. history, the largest and most complex investigation.
"At least 84,000 pieces were recovered and pieced together to solve the mystery of what caused the explosion,” said Orwig.
Initially, there was concern the explosion was intentional because there was an Israeli astronaut on board and authorities feared he might be a target, so they had increased security for the landing.
"The greater fear on landing was a possible terror attack and that’s why upon landing they were strengthening security in Florida,” said Galius.
”We weren’t far removed from 9/11 and so there was a consideration that it could have been a terrorist attack of some kind,” said Orwig.
NASA raced to recover as much of the shuttle as possible to determine the cause. Thousands of law enforcement officers and soldiers were called in to help recover the parts. While most people turned over what was found, a few residents wanted to keep it and that was considered a crime.
“Many people naturally thought they should be able to keep it or wanted to keep it. We stressed the importance,” said Orwig.
A few people were prosecuted for not turning over pieces of the shuttle and eventually, nearly 40 percent of it was recovered including the left wing.
WFAA was there when a rancher found it.
The left-wing was critical to the investigation because NASA eventually determined the heat tiles on the wing were damaged on takeoff.
"That left wing is what actually got hit by a piece of the foam from the main tank, the piece that hit the orbiter was a little less than two pounds, white and so anything dealing with the left wing was point zero in the investigation,” said Gutheinz.
Gutheinz says NASA knew a piece of foam had struck the left wing on take-off but determined it wasn’t a problem. Even WFAA’s anchors reported that in the first hour of our coverage.
"NASA said, as late as Friday, that the thermal tiles, the projective tiles that protect the shuttle on the incredible heat of reentry, that the damage of the tiles was believed to be minor at the time and posed no threat,” said Galius.
But it was catastrophic.
“That’s exactly what happened, a hole was created on impact and that hole led to the destruction of the orbiter,” said Gutheinz.
Among the things recovered was some video from inside the orbiter of the astronauts as they prepared for re-entry. You can hear one of them say, "It’s really neat. It’s bright orange over the nose.”
You see them going through their final checklists and looking outside the orbiter.
”This is amazing. It’s really bright out there. Yep, definitely don’t want to be outside there now.”
But minutes later, they would all perish. All of the astronauts' remains were recovered in East Texas.
“Every time remains were recovered, they would pause and everything and have a moment of silence,” said Orwig.
Two decades later, pieces of the shuttle are still being found, a reminder of this tragic historical event that took place in the Texas sky.