Uses of GIS/GPS in the Space Shuttle Columbia Debris Recovery

Caitlin Dempsey


On February 1st 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed upon re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere.

During its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, the Columbia disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana due to damage sustained to its thermal protection system during launch. As a result, debris from the shuttle was scattered over a wide area, primarily in East Texas and Western Louisiana.

GPS and GIS technologies are helping in the recovery efforts to find space shuttle debris.

STS-107 Debris Field – Space Shuttle Columbia

Radar image of the debris field.

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Rader image from the Shreveport, Louisiana National Weather Service (KSHV 16:15 UTC 02/01/2003).

Radar image.

Following the disaster, an extensive search and recovery operation was launched to locate and collect the debris. This effort involved thousands of people, including NASA personnel, local and federal authorities, and volunteers.

The debris maps were created to document the locations of found debris, helping investigators to analyze the pattern of distribution and piece together the sequence of events that led to the catastrophe.

Articles on the Application of GPS/GIS in recovering Space Shuttle Columbia debris:

Williams, J. M. (2003). Search and Recovery of the Space Shuttle Columbia: A Geospatial 1st Responder Perspective.

GPS/GIS mapping helps narrow search for shuttle debris
February 5, 2003 article by Bob Brewin of Computerworld on how GPS and GIS technology is helping the efforts to map the Columbia Shuttle debris path.

Profiler Data Supports NASA in Shuttle Columbia Investigation
Article from the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on how NOAA’s Profiler Network radars were able to collect the vertical and horizontal positions of debris falling from Columbia.

STS Debris Path Maps

Debris path maps for eastern Texas created by the researchers and undergraduates at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas. February, 2003.

A map showing the debris field from the Columbia shuttle over Texas.

The data collected from the debris maps was crucial in identifying the root cause of the accident, which was later determined to be damage to the shuttle’s left wing from a piece of insulating foam that broke off the external fuel tank during launch.

A black and white satellite image with a rainbow path showing the likely debris field from the Columbia Shuttle.

The findings from the Columbia disaster investigation led to significant improvements in shuttle safety, inspection procedures, and risk management for future space missions.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.