A first critical error ended up being canceled by another independent error

The two isolated errors that saved the Columbia shuttle from a disaster in 1999

The space race has been one of the greatest technological and scientific challenges that humanity has faced since its beginnings.

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The most brilliant minds have made very valuable contributions to build rockets and spacecraft with the necessary characteristics to provide a safe trip to astronauts who faced great dangers with each of their missions. Let us keep in mind that space is an area incompatible with life, so many precautions must be taken before sending people on a space trip. Despite this, there have been mistakes that have ended catastrophically, but there have also been amazing coincidences that have avoided terrible endings.

The launch of NASA's space shuttle Columbia from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on July 27, 1999 (Photo: NASA).

One of those miraculous coincidences occurred on July 27, 1999, during the launch of the space shuttle Columbia on its STS-93 mission, in charge of taking the Chandra X-ray Observatory into space, a especially heavy load, which is why the weight of the ship had to be reduced in other aspects: its usual crew of seven astronauts was reduced to five and the engines were changed for lighter ones. The launch appeared to be apparently normal, but it was later discovered that this mission almost ended in disaster.

The crew of the Columbia ship on the STS-93 mission. From left to right, Commander Eileen M. Collins, Pilot Jeffrey S. Ashby and Mission Specialists Steven A. Hawley, Catherine G. Coleman and Michel Tognini (Photo: NASA).

An object detached from the right engine caused a hydrogen leak that could have had a catastrophic end to the mission if the damage caused by that object had been slightly greater. That leak consumed more fuel than expected, so the ship could have run out of the fuel necessary to reach orbit, and returning to earth with such a heavy load would have been very risky. However, another unrelated error nullified the effects of that first failure: a short circuit caused by a screw rubbing on a cable. Primal Space has explained it in great detail in this excellent video:

Unfortunately, the Columbia spacecraft was not so fortunate on its STS-107 mission, launched on January 16, 2003. Upon its return to Earth, on February 1 of that year, that space shuttle was disintegrated due to a piece that came loose from its heat shield during launch. Its seven crew members died: Rick Husband, William McCool, David McDowell Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, Laurel Blair Salton Clark and Ilan Ramon. Rest in peace.


Main photo: NASA. The launch of NASA's Space Shuttle Columbia mission STS-93 on July 27, 1999.

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