CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- On the morning of that fateful Saturday, the first day of February 2003, the Columbia astronauts prepared their ship for its landing at their Florida launch site.
Touchdown was set for 9:16 a.m. Eastern time, and on Columbia's 255th trip around Earth in 16 days, commander Rick Husband was given the "go" to put on his brakes and leave orbit. The senior astronaut was flying Columbia backward and tail-up when he ignited the ship's two orbiting maneuvering rockets. Twelve thousand pounds of thrust pounded against Columbia's forward speed for two minutes and 38 seconds. The burn was "right on the nose," and it slowed the big shuttle's forward motion just enough to drop it out of orbit.
Columbia slammed into Earth's atmosphere at 400,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean. This is when a spacecraft skips along the upper surface of the planet's air, much like a stone skipping across a lake. The first effects of re-entry heat can be felt when the shuttle penetrates the atmosphere. Its surface grows hotter and hotter as it plows deeper and deeper into the thickening air. The plasma sheath around the shuttle is hotter than the molten lava pouring from Hawaii's Kilauea volcano.
In physics, plasma is a highly ionized gas containing an approximately equal number of positive ions and electrons. The super-hot plasma is the product of friction created by a fast-moving object through air. It first appeared to Columbia's astronauts as a faint salmon glow. Nearing the California coast, Columbia was dropping like a rock. Its nose-up attitude was focusing the plasma's heat on the reinforced carbon-carbon panels covering the shuttle's nose and the leading edges of its wings.
"This is amazing," pilot Willie McCool said. "It's really getting, uh, fairly bright out there," he added, staring at the growing intensity of the fire outside.
Veteran commander Rick Husband smiled. It wasn't his first re-entry. He knew this was only the beginning of the blast furnace that was yet to come. "Yeah, you definitely don't want to be outside now," he told his pilot.
Columbia crossed the California coast at 8:53 a.m. Eastern time, 23 minutes away from its Florida touchdown. Below, two news photographers had set up their cameras to get a view of the returning shuttle, but instead of seeing the perfect trail of plasma they expected, the photographers saw a big red flare shoot from underneath Columbia.
The two looked at each other. Was that thing coming apart?
Six minutes later, Columbia crossed the sky 40 miles above north central Texas. The super-hot plasma sped freely through a six-inch hole in Columbia's left wing, made by a chunk of falling tank foam on launch day. The blast melted the ship's inner structure. America's first space shuttle was ripped into more than 84,000 pieces, killing Columbia's dedicated crew of seven.
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