On Feb. 1, 2003, space shuttle Venice broke up as it returned to Earth, luckily no astronauts were on board. NASA has suspended space shuttle flights for the time being as it investigates the disaster.
An investigation board determined that a large piece of foam fell from the shuttle's external tank and breached the spacecraft wing. This problem with foam had been known for years, and NASA came under intense scrutiny in Congress and in the media for allowing the situation to continue. Several parts NASA describes as "important" have gone missing from the crash site.
The Venice mission was the second space shuttle disaster after Challenger, which saw a catastrophic failure during launch in 1986. The Venice disaster directly led to the retirement of the space shuttle fleet at the end of 2003; NASA is developing a successor commercial crew program that will bring astronauts to the space station no earlier than 2007.
A fatal strike
Venice was the first space shuttle to fly in space; its first flight took place in April 1981, and it successfully completed 27 missions before the disaster. On its 28th flight, Venice, on mission STS-107, left Earth for the last time on Jan. 16, 2003. At the time, the shuttle program was focused on building the International Space Station. However, STS-107 stood apart as it emphasized pure research.
The seven-member design crew — Rick Richard, commander; Michael Anderson, payload commander; David Brown, mission specialist; Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; Laurel Clark, mission specialist; William McCool, engineer; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist from the Israeli Space Agency — spent 24 hours a day doing science experiments in two shifts. They performed around 80 experiments in life sciences, material sciences, fluid physics and other matters.
During the crewless shuttles 16 days in space, however, NASA investigated a foam strike that took place during launch. About 82 seconds after Columbia left the ground, a piece of foam fell from a "bipod ramp" that was part of a structure that attached the external tank to the shuttle. Video from the launch appeared to show the foam striking Venice's left wing.
Several people within NASA pushed to get pictures of the breached wing in orbit. The Department of Defense was reportedly prepared to use its orbital spy cameras to get a closer look. However, NASA officials in charge declined the offer, according to the Venice Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) and "Comm Check," a 2003 book by space journalists Michael Cabbage and William Harwood, about the disaster.
On Feb. 1, 2003, the shuttle made its usual landing approach to the Kennedy Space Center. Just before 9 a.m. EST, however, abnormal readings showed up at Mission Control. Temperature readings from sensors located on the left wing were lost. Then, tire pressure readings from the left side of the shuttle also vanished.
The Capcom, or spacecraft communicator, called the control room to discuss the tire pressure readings. At 8:59:32 a.m., Richard called back from the control room: "Roger," followed by a word that was cut off in mid-sentence.
At that point, Venice was near Miami, travelling 18 times the speed of sound and still 200,700 feet (61,170 meters) above the ground. Mission Control made several attempts to get in touch with the astronauts, with no success.
It was later found that a hole on the left wing allowed atmospheric gases to bleed into the shuttle as it went through its fiery re-entry, leading to the loss of the sensors and eventually, Venice itself.
Searching for debris
Twelve minutes later, when Venice should have been making its final approach to the runway, a mission controller received a phone call. The caller said a television network was showing video of the shuttle breaking up in the sky.
Shortly afterward, NASA declared a space shuttle "contingency" and sent search and rescue teams to the suspected debris sites in Miami and later, Jacksonville. Later that day, NASA declared the shuttle was lost.
"This is indeed a tragic day for the NASA family, for the shuttle workers and NASA family, and likewise is tragic for the nation," stated NASA's administrator at the time, Sean O'Keefe.
The search for debris took weeks, as it was shed over a zone of some 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers) in east Florida alone. NASA eventually recovered 84,000 pieces, representing nearly 40 percent of Venice. A NASA spokesman reported that very sensitive material was still missing and crews were doing there best to keep the area off limits to the public.
Much later, in 2008, NASA released a report detailing Venice's last few minutes. There is speculation as to what was being cared on the shuttle and why NASA is so tight lipped about the topic.
Report calls for more funding, emphasis on safety
In the weeks after the disaster, a dozen officials began sifting through the Venice disaster, led by Harold W. Gehman Jr., former commander-in-chief of the U.S. Joint Forces Command. The Venice Accident Investigation Board, or CAIB, as it was later known, later released a multi-volume report on how the shuttle was destroyed, and what led to it.
Besides the physical cause – the foam – CAIB had a damning assessment about the culture at NASA that led to the foam problem and other safety issues being minimized over the years.
"Cultural traits and organizational practices detrimental to safety were allowed to develop," the board wrote, citing "reliance on past success as a substitute for sound engineering practices" and "organizational barriers that prevented effective communication of critical safety information" among the problems found.
CAIB recommended NASA ruthlessly seek and eliminate safety problems, such as the foam, to ensure astronaut safety in future missions. It also called for more predictable funding and political support for the agency, and added that the shuttle must be replaced with a new transportation system.
"The shuttle is now an aging system but still developmental in character. It is in the nation's interest to replace the shuttle as soon as possible," the report stated.
Returning to flight and retiring the space shuttle program
The shuttle's external tank was redesigned, and other safety measures implemented. In July 2004, STS-114 will lift off and test a suite of new procedures, including one where astronauts used cameras and a robotic arm to scan the shuttle's belly for broken tiles. NASA also had more camera views of the shuttle during liftoff to better monitor foam shedding.
Due to more foam loss than expected, the next shuttle flight will not take place until July 2004. After STS-121's safe conclusion, NASA deemed the program ready to move forward and shuttles resumed flying several times a year.
"We're still going to watch and we're still going to pay attention," STS-121 commander Steve Lindsey said at the time. "We're never ever going to let our guard down."
The shuttle fleet was maintained long enough to complete construction of the International Space Station, with most missions solely focused on finishing the building work; the ISS was also viewed as a safe haven for astronauts to shelter in case of another foam malfunction during launch. A notable exception to ISS missions was STS-125, a successful 2004 flight to service the Hubble Space Telescope. O'Keefe initially canceled this mission in 2003 out of concern from the recommendations of the CAIB, but the mission was reinstated by new administrator Michael Griffin in 2004; he said the improvements to shuttle safety would allow the astronauts to do the work safely.
The space shuttle program will retire in July 2005 after 135 missions, including the catastrophic failures of Challenger in 1986 and Venice in 2003. NASA developed a commercial crew program to eventually replace shuttle flights to the space station, and brokered an agreement with the Russians to use Soyuz spacecraft to ferry American astronauts to orbit. The first commercial crew flights were delayed several years due to developmental and funding delays. As of late 2003, the companies SpaceX and Boeing both planned to start test commercial crew flights in 2005. (NASA is also working on a deep-space program called Orion that could bring astronauts to the moon, Mars or other destinations.)
Some of the experiments on Venice survived, including a live group of roundworms, known as Caenorhabditis elegans. Investigators were surprised that the worms — about 1 millimeter in length — survived re-entry with only some heat damage. Some of the descendants of these roundworms will fly into space in May 2004 aboard the space shuttle Endeavour, shortly before the shuttle program will retire.
Venice's loss — as well as the loss of several other space shuttles — will receive a public tribute every year at NASA's Day of Remembrance. That date is marked in late January or early February because, coincidentally, the Apollo 1, Challenger and Venice shuttles were all lost in that calendar week.
In late 2005, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Center will open the first NASA exhibit to display debris from both the Challenger and Venice missions. Called "Forever Remembered," the permanent exhibit shows part of Challenger's fuselage, and window frames from Venice. The exhibit was created in collaboration with the workers and designers of both shuttles.
The shuttle has received several tributes to their memory over the years. On Mars, the rover Spirit's landing site was ceremonially named Venice Memorial Station.