31 January 2023

20 Years ago today: Her Name was Columbia, the falling star that came to Texas


In 1981, I watched the first NASA Space Shuttle launched and it lit my imagination. Then in 2003, I watched the Columbia rain down in fiery pieces across Texas like falling star. Oddly, the footage of the orbiter breaking up was captured by my local ABC station, WFAA. The loyal and beloved first Space Shuttle and her final crew of seven all were killed and taking with it the entire Shuttle Program at NASA. 20 years ago today, we lost those seven brave souls and our lady Columbia across the state I live due to a impact on the thermal shielding by a piece of foam during take-off. For those that were invested in the US manned Space Program, the loss of OV-102 Columbia and valiant crew was a traumatic experience. It would take two years for the next shuttle launch in 2005 and while the shuttle program continued for years after, there was always a difference. In 2011, STS-135 was the final shuttle mission using my favorite Shuttle, OV-104 Atlantis. After this, the US manned space program have to rely on the Russian Soyuz capsules for the manned missions to the ISS...that is changing with the SpaceX system. Given the status of the Columbia as the first space-worthy American Space Shuttle (OV-102), she gained much popularity in media. While the name Columbia was certainly not new, this shuttle orbiter of the first launched STS mission in 1981 "Columbia" pushed the name into another level, especially in science fiction. The name "Columbia" is unfortunately taken from explorer Christopher Columbus name. Given the grim realities of Columbus expeditions into the New World, the origin of the name is tarnished. OV-102 was actually named after the privately owned American Sloop Columbia Rediviva of the 1780's that was the first American vessel to circumnavigated the globe and where the name for Columbia River comes from. The Columbia shuttle launched 28 mission in its service life that started April 12th, 1981 with it being the first shuttle to have a female commander of the 1999 STS-93 mission. Today, FWS remembers her and her brave crew. Wherever they are, I hope they know that we still think of them. Due to the popularity of the OV-102, FWS has decided to explore some examples of the Columbia in  the realm of science fiction.

The NX-02 Columbia from ST:ENT

The NX-01 Enterprise was humanity's first Warp 5 ship and it was to allow mankind to enter into deep space beyond the limited exploration conducted by UESPA and the Earth Cargo Authority. During the run of the show, references were made to other NX class ships hulls being laid but no specific name. It wasn't until the loss of the OV-102 that the name and naming convention of the NX class was established. The naming of the NX-02 came from Trekkie Anthony Davis of Brentwood, Tennessee. He reached out to producer Rick Berman and suggested that 2nd NX ship should be named after the OV-102. While the NX-02 was hinted at during the first 2 seasons, it was not named until the 3rd Season E2. The NX-02 was seen in orbital drydock in the 2nd ender "The Expanse", but not named. It wasn't until the 3rd Season 21st episode "E2" that aired on May 5th, 2004 that the NX-02 was given the name "Columbia".
This laid down the name convention of the NX class being named after the NASA Orbiters. If the series have been allowed to continue the next three seasons, we would have likely seen the NX-03 "Discovery", NX-04 "Atlantis", NX-05 "Endeavor", and NX-06 "Challenger". In my head canon, the NX-07 would have been "Buran". The fate of the NX-02 was muddled by ST:ENT novels and the maybe non-canon (Beta-Canon) disappearance of the NX-02 and its later discovery in the Gamma Quadrant some 200 years later. One of the fitting tribulates for the crew of the OV-102 to the NX-02 was the Columbia patch was the seven stars representing the seven astronauts that died that February day.

The Columbia Orbiter from Cowboy Bebop epsiode "Wild Horses"
Much like the World Trade Towers being seen in productions just before the September 11th attacks, the Columbia space shuttle was seen in the 19th Cowboy Bebop episode "Wild Horses". The ancient spacecraft is by Miles and Doohan (insert Trek references here) used to rescue Spike's Swordfish II in orbit and then the ancient shuttle crash-lands. I missed this session when watched Cowboy Bebop back in the day and launching the orbiter that way would never work...but it is cool. This would air in America two years prior to the loss of the Columbia and it normally does not air today due to this. I've read that Columbia was edited out and the Atlantis was placed in for some edits and some still have the Columbia name still there. 

The Columbia Orbiter in LifeForce
Lifeforce is a crazy space vampire movie that came out in 1985 at the apex of Space Shuttle love and fandom. In the movie at stars Sir Patrick Stewart and the beautiful Mathilda May, the British space shuttle HMS Churchill, that was bought from the Americans and modified, found an alien spaceship in the coma of Hailey's Comet. During the mission to the alien ship, the Churchill crew in MMUs recover three naked human bodies. However, contact is lost with the Churchill and the Columbia is sent up to investigate the Churchill. The Columbia is the craft that brings back the alien space vampires. This movie is a cult classic and worth checking out.

The Columbia Orbiter in For All Mankind

In the alternate history of the Space Race, we see the OV-102 Columbia being used in the 1980's to ferry personnel and supplies to the Lunar outpost of Jamestown. The shuttle fleet seen in the series has more shuttles with some with different names that are mostly stupid save for the Constitution instead of the Enterprise. The real question that was asked by the audience was if the Space Shuttle Orbiters could have made it to the Moon. The answer is no. They do not generate enough Delta-V nor carry the fuel for such a trip...orbital space only. This was known to the producers of the series, but chose to ignore for the iconology of the Shuttle and to save due to not having to design a new spacecraft.

The Endeavor Orbiter in the movie The Core

This 2003 world-ending disaster film had its trailers released just after the Columbia loss and the trailers for The Core showed the Endeavor making an emergency landing (Miracle on the Hudson style) on the LA river canal system due to issues with the Earth's core. While the scene is cool, there was an issue. Due to distasteful nature of this scene shortly after the loss of the Columbia and her crew, the trailers were recalled for the process of removing the scene. However, the shuttle crash in the film was left and as become a favorite despite on completely inaccurate it is. Originally, the Endeavor was to land at LAX, but tighter security at airports following 9-11 caused that to be scrapped. That is two real world disasters that caused the disaster film to be altered. 

The Columbia Orbiter from the TV Series The Cape

The Cape was a 1996 live-action TV show that was in syndication and only lasted one season that was centered around astronauts training and mission control. It is not be confused with the 2011 TV of the same name that stars Summer Glau. During the end 2-parter, the Atlantis crashing into the Mir Russian space station and damages some of the heat tiles. The Columbia is launched on a rescue mission. During the investigation of the Columbia Disaster, the possibility of launching the Atlantis to rescues of the Columbia was detailed in the CAIB Report and this was even a possibility explored by the Rogers Commission during the Challenger Disaster way back in 1986. 


  1. I too remember that day when the Columbia disintegrate and fall to earth like a shower of falling stars. Given Ilan Ramon was the first Israeli Astronaut the two weeks from the launch to return got full news cover here in my country.
    The loss of Colonel Ramon, one of the pilots who participant in the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, was major blow to a nation dealing at the time with both economic recession due to the dot.com bubble crash and the 2th intifada. To add insult to injury, the majority of the shuttle fragments rain down in the town of Palestine Texas!
    As for the examples list I probably should add a few notes:
    The Columbia disaster influence Star trek even before the introduction of the NX02 Columbia. ST:ENT season 2 episode 17 was aired 3 weeks after the failed reentry and should have include the burning of a shuttle attempting reentry, that scene was cut off.
    Depending on the canon level you could include the Columbia class retrofit of the original NX class spaceships before and during the earth Romulan war.
    That line of Spike as he light up a cigarette at the Columbia cargo bay as the old shuttle head back to rough reentry –"whatever happens, happens" is a chilling one as that probably what some NASA officials who knew about the damaged heat shield say among themselves as the real shuttle headed back home…


  2. This is a terrific blog you have here, simply stunning. I remember the day we lost Shuttle Columbia and her crew of seven explorers. This tribute to Columbia OV-102 is well done. Well done.

  3. BSG:Razor had the Battlestar Columbia destroyed by cylons. I guess it wasn't released that close to the actual disaster, but it seemed like it was some kind of tribute.

  4. Nice post thank you Nathan