20 years after Columbia NASA remembers astronauts lost, vows not to repeat past mistakes of human spaceflight

NASA and its partners honor the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia astronaut crews every year on Jan. 26. Former NASA astronaut and NASA Associate Administrator Bob Cabana tells FOX Weather this day is about 'hard lessons learned.'

NASA Associate Administrator and former astronaut Bob Cabana will always remember the day of the Columbia tragedy.

Twenty years ago, on Feb. 1, 2023, Cabana was waiting at the shuttle landing facility to hear the sonic booms as Columbia returned home with seven astronauts.

"And they never came," Cabana said.

As Columbia was re-entering Earth's atmosphere, mission control lost contact with the space shuttle. 

STS-107 crew members David Brown, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, Rick Husband, Laurel Blair Salton Clark and Ilan Ramon were all lost in the spaceflight failure. 

"It was really hard knowing that we've lost seven of my friends," Cabana recalls.

NASA later determined a piece of foam from the external tank fell during the launch on Jan. 16, 2003, hitting one of the shuttle's wings at 500 mph. The blow from the foam caused the shuttle to overheat and break up over Texas upon re-entry.


Thursday marks NASA's Day of Remembrance to honor all the lives lost in the pursuit of space exploration, including Columbia, the Apollo 1 fire and the Challenger explosion.

"It's important that we remember on our day of remembrance, we take time not only to honor the crews of Apollo, Challenger and Columbia and other lost comrades but more importantly, we remember the hard lessons learned," Cabana said. "And that's our day of remembrance, a day of honor, but a day to remember so that we don't make the same mistakes in the past as we move on exploring beyond our home planet."

Spaceflight is ‘unforgiving of mistakes'

This year's day of remembrance also comes as NASA is closer to launching astronauts back to the moon under the Artemis program and the commercial space industry has re-shaped the human spaceflight industry. 

Cabana said just because everything appears normal doesn't mean engineers and mission team members shouldn't speak up.

"The most important thing is that we listen, that when we have a meeting, everybody feels free to speak up and hear their concerns and that they're actually listened to and that we act on people's concerns, that we get all the right information when we're making our decisions," Cabana said.


Commercial space companies like SpaceX, Boeing and Axiom Space planning to or currently flying crew to space also reflected on the lives lost.

Axiom Space shared a photo of the three astronaut crews on display at the company's headquarters in Houston. 

NASA marked the Day of Remembrance with a ceremony on Thursday at Kennedy Space Center's Visitor Complex.

Cabana said for those of the Artemis generation who were not alive for the space shuttle tragedies or the Apollo 1 fire it remains important to know that these astronauts sacrificed their lives in the name of exploration.

"What we do is terribly unforgiving of mistakes, but it's extremely important," Cabana said. "A ship in the harbor is safe, but it's not doing what it should do. We need to be out exploring. We need to follow their example, their fearless example of exploration. And we need to continue to explore beyond our own planet and establish a presence in our solar system, beyond planet Earth. And that's what we're going to do."