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Michael P. Anderson, former Spokane resident, and six fellow astronauts die when Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrates during re-entry on February 1, 2003.
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On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia breaks up over Texas during its return to Cape Kennedy from a 16-day scientific mission in orbit. All seven astronauts aboard perish, including USAF Lt. Col. Michael P. Anderson, a long-time Spokane resident and University of Washington graduate. Also lost was Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli to travel into space.
African American Space Pioneer
Born on December 25, 1959, in Plattsburgh, New York, Michael Anderson grew up following his father's Air Force career around the nation until the family arrived at Fairchild Air Force Base. Anderson was 11 at the time. He graduated from Cheney High School in 1977 and took degrees in physics and astronomy at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1981. Anderson met his wife, Sandra Hawkins, in Spokane and they raised two daughters.
A member of the Air Force ROTC, he immediately entered active service and quickly rose through the ranks to Lt. Colonel as an electronics expert and pilot with the Strategic Air Command. He later earned a Master of Science degree from Creighton University, a Jesuit college in Omaha, Nebraska. Anderson was accepted for NASA astronaut training in 1995, and made his first Shuttle flight aboard the Endeavor in 1998 to carry supplies and new crewmen to the former Soviet space station Mir. He and his colleagues spent nine days in orbit.
He is survived by his wife, Sandra, formerly of Spokane. She and the couple's daughters, ages 9 and 11, now live in the Houston area. Anderson is also survived by his parents, Bobbie and Barbara of Spokane, and three sisters, Brenda, Diane, and Joann.
Space Shuttle's Roots in Washington
Built in 1981, the Space Shuttle Columbia was the oldest of NASA's Space Transportation System (STS) fleet. The space plane was named specifically to honor the sailing ship Columbia Rediviva commanded by Captain Robert Gray (1755-1806) when he became the first Euro-American explorer to chart the "great river of the west" in 1792. Gray, a retired U. S. Navy officer employed by Boston traders, named the Columbia River for his vessel.
The ill-fated flight was Columbia's 28th trip to space and the 113th STS mission. The Columbia's loss is NASA's first fatal accident during re-entry in the entire 42-year history of its manned space program. A Washington native, Commander Francis R. "Dick" Scobee, died with six other astronauts when the shuttle Challenger exploded during ascent on January 28, 1986. Including the death of three Apollo astronauts in a 1967 launch-pad fire and the loss of four Soviet cosmonauts, a total of 21 people have died on space missions since Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth on April 12, 1961.
The Boeing Company, formerly based in Seattle and still a major Washington employer, has been deeply involved in the U.S. space program since the Apollo lunar landing program of the 1960s. In 1996, Boeing purchased Rockwell American, which designed and built the first Shuttles, and became a partner with Lockheed in subsequent STS production and operations. Boeing is also the prime contractor for the International Space Station, which relies on Space Shuttles for supplies and crew rotation.
Just 16 Minutes From Home
Columbia lifted off from Florida's Kennedy Space Center on January 16, 2003, under exceptional security due to fears that the participation of Israel Air Force Colonel Ramon might inspire a terrorist attack (which is not suspected in the subsequent accident). During the launch, large slabs of ice and a segment of insulation foam sloughed off the Shuttle's main fuel tank and struck the bottom side of its left wing. Such incidents are not unusual, and engineers deemed any damage insignificant at the time, but final telemetry from the descending Shuttle indicated overheating in the left wing during its fiery re-entry.
The mission was the first purely scientific Shuttle operation in three years, and the five men and two women aboard Columbia carried out an ambitious program of more than 80 separate experiments. The Columbia did not visit the International Space Station or launch any satellites while in orbit.
Columbia was just 16 minutes from landing in Florida when NASA suddenly lost contact with it at 9 a.m. At that moment, the craft was descending at 12,500 m.p.h. from an altitude of nearly 40 miles on its glide path across Texas. Some local observers reported hearing a large explosion and many watched and recorded multiple fireballs and contrails as fragments of the Columbia rained down along a 100-mile swath of eastern Texas and Louisiana. President Bush and NASA immediately launched an investigation, which will likely take months to complete.
Tracy Ellig "Michael Anderson Always Knew He Would Go to Space," Spokane Spokesman-Review, February 2, 2003; David Postman and Jonathan Martin, "Spokane Astronaut Lived Dream," The Seattle Times, February 2, 2003; David Bowermaster, "Boeing Closely Tied to Shuttle Program," Ibid.; NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) Website (http://www.nasa.gov).
Note: This essay was corrected on March 16, 2012.
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