JACKSONVILLE,Fla. – Fifteen years ago Thursday, the Shuttle Columbia was destroyed while reentering the Earth's atmosphere and seven astronauts died when the spacecraft disintegrated over Texas.
Yet some living organisms onboard survived the fiery crash and prove how interplanetary transfer of life is possible.
Through the wreckage, lab worms survived in four lab canisters holding nematodes used during space experiments. They survived the superheated crash relatively unprotected. Possible lifeforms hitchhiking inside a meteorite hitting Earth could in theory survive based on the living nematodes found in the Columbia wreckage.
After 16 days of experiments in space, the seven-person crew began its return to Florida when the disaster occurred at 9 a.m. on Feb. 1, 2003.
Cmdr. Rick Husband was the last astronaut to communicate with mission control, saying, "Roger," followed by a word that was cut off in mid-sentence.
At that point, Columbia was near Dallas, traveling 18 times the speed of sound and still 200,700 feet 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, Columbia itself.
The crew was not told about any risk and didn't know something was wrong until very late in re-entry, according to ABC News.
January and February are somber anniversaries for NASA. The Challenger space shuttle exploded on Jan. 28, 1986 and the Apollo 1 fire that killed three was on Jan. 27, 1967.