Senator Cornyn

We Remember: Honoring the 20th Anniversary of the Space Shuttle Columbia

February 16, 2023

Earlier this month, Americans reflected on the 20-year anniversary of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster that took the lives of all seven astronauts on board.

On February 1st, 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia was returning to Earth after 16 days in orbit, and preparations for a celebration at Kennedy Space Center in Florida were underway. Sadly, tragedy struck as the shuttle broke into several pieces while reentering Earth’s atmosphere.

As the wreckage fell from the sky, Texas law enforcement officers, fire and emergency personnel, and good Samaritans responded swiftly as the nation learned of this unthinkable catastrophe.

Within minutes, ordinary Texans did extraordinary things as they worked together to secure the roads and protect the safety of their fellow Texans. Their efforts helped speed up the investigation and were a testament to the dedication and resolve of our great state.

The disaster left a field of wreckage that stretched from Fort Worth across East Texas and into Louisiana, prompting a massive search effort by the government to recover pieces of the space shuttle to help assess what went wrong. As National Guard troops and officials from NASA, the EPA, and every level of law enforcement began canvassing 2.3 million acres, they were joined by thousands of volunteers to support their search efforts.

From college students at Stephen F. Austin State University to teams of ham radio operators who helped law enforcement communicate, more than 25,000 volunteers helped collect 84,000 pounds of the wreckage and the remains of our heroic astronauts.

In the weeks following this tragedy, I visited an area in Nacogdoches where tents were set up for search teams, and it was remarkable to see the dedication of these East Texans firsthand.

They shared their stories of combing through pine forests and underbrush in the rain and cold temperatures and despite those conditions, their commitment led to crucial discoveries for the investigation.

In the years since, NASA has transformed the culture and operations of their agency to improve the safety of future missions. In fact, recommendations from Jon Clark, NASA flight surgeon and husband to deceased Columbia astronaut Laurel Clark, helped shape many of those policy changes.

In light of the 20th anniversary, I passed a bipartisan resolution in the United States Senate to honor the memories of the seven heroes we lost that fateful day and commemorate our nation’s commitment to research and space exploration.

The Space Shuttle Columbia serves as a somber yet powerful reminder of the strength of Texas communities to come together for the greater good in the face of unfathomable tragedy. As Texans, February 1st is an opportunity for each of us to take a moment to reflect on the sacrifice of these brave astronauts and to remember their legacies.