thumb|384px|link=The Space Shuttle Columbia disaster occurred on February 1, 2003 when Columbia disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere, killing all seven crew members. The disaster was the result of a debris strike on the wing during launch which ultimately caused hot atmospheric gases to enter the spacecraft through the impact point and destroy it in mid-air.

Columbia may have inspired in part the ultimate fate of the Tiangong Station.


During the launch of STS-107, Columbia's 28th mission, a piece of foam insulation broke off from the Space Shuttle external tank and struck the left wing. Most previous shuttle launches saw minor damage from foam shedding, but some engineers suspected that the damage to Columbia was more serious. NASA managers limited the investigation, reasoning that the crew could not have fixed the problem if it were confirmed.

When the Shuttle re-entered the atmosphere of Earth, the damage allowed hot atmospheric gases to penetrate and destroy the internal wing structure which caused the spacecraft to become unstable and slowly break apart.

After the disaster, Space Shuttle flight operations were suspended for more than two years, similar to the aftermath of the Challenger disaster. Construction of the International Space Station (ISS) was put on hold. The station relied entirely on the Russian Federal Space Agency for resupply for 29 months until Shuttle flights resumed with STS-114 and 41 months for crew rotation until STS-121.

Several technical and organizational changes were made including adding a thorough on-orbit inspection to determine how well the shuttle's thermal protection system endured the ascent and keeping a designated rescue mission ready in case irreparable damage was found. Except for one final mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, subsequent missions were flown only to the ISS so the crew could use it as a "safe haven".