Launch Day

The launch day for Columbia and the STS-107 mission finally arrived on January 16, 2003. The mission had been rescheduled 13 times since NASA first announced it in 1999.

Commander Rick Husband, pilot Willie McCool, payload commander Mike Anderson, mission specialists Kalpana “KC” Chawla, Laurel Clark, and Dave Brown, and payload specialist Ilan Ramon had been training together as a team for several years. The mission delays, while frustrating, gave them time to bond even more closely as a family. They were ready to fly.

This was Bob Cabana’s first mission as the head of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate, and he was happy to be with his friends on the 107 crew as they suited up in the Operations and Checkout Building. Astronauts Kent “Rommel” Rominger (chief astronaut) and Jerry Ross (heading the Vehicle Integration Test Office) were also on hand on this joyous occasion. Robert Hanley from the Vehicle Integration Test Team taped the proceedings with Dave Brown’s video camera. Brown had been compiling a video documentary of the crew’s training and time together.

Before they exited the O&C Building for their ride to the launch pad, Husband gathered his crew in a circle for a moment of prayer. He recited the verses of Joshua 1:6-9, concluding with, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

The ebullient crew strode out of the O&C Building. Husband and McCool reached over their heads and patted the door frame in yet another launch day tradition.

Crew walkout for STS107Credit; Scott Andrews/NASA
The STS-107 crew and their entourage leave the O&C Building. (NASA photo KSC-03PD-0109)

The Astrovan stopped at a checkpoint near the VAB. Rominger left to fly the Shuttle Training Aircraft to check on conditions aloft in case the crew needed to fly an abort that would return them to the Shuttle Landing Facility. Cabana, Ross, Hanley, and the flight surgeon left to go to the launch control center. The surgeon went to man the medical console in the firing room. Cabana, Ross, and Hanley joined the crew’s families.

At the launch pad, the closeout crew strapped in the crew and said their goodbyes. The crew went through the pre-launch checklist. Everything looked to be in great shape.

The countdown proceeded smoothly. There was a scare just before the count came out of the final T minus 9 minute hold. An unidentified blip appeared on the radar—something that appeared to be headed toward the launch pad. With security at its highest point for any shuttle launch and an Israeli astronaut on board, Mike Leinbach came as close as he ever had to telling the crew to punch out. However, the issue cleared up in time for the count to resume. (This situation is described in much more detail in our upcoming book.)

Leinbach got on the comm loop with the crew: “If there ever was a time to use the phrase, ‘Good things come to people who wait’, this is the one time. From the many, many people who put this mission together: Good luck and Godspeed.”

Husband replied, “We appreciate it, Mike. The Lord has blessed us with a beautiful day here, and we’re going to have a great mission. We’re ready to go.”

A few seconds before 10:39 a.m., Columbia’s three main engines ignited. The ship “twanged’—rocked forward by the off-center impulse—and then returned to a vertical position. At that instant, the solid rocket boosters ignited, explosive bolts were fired, and Columbia roared off into a beautiful blue sky.

It was the last time anyone at KSC would see her as an intact vehicle.

Next: The foam strike

launch-03pd0116
Columbia blasts off on her final mission, January 16, 2003. (NASA photo KSC-03PD-0116)

Author: Jonathan Ward

Jonathan Ward is an author of books on the history of American manned spaceflight. He also serves as an adjunct executive coach at the Center for Creative Leadership.

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