DISASTER IN SPACE: STS-107 2022-06-23T10:34:16-05:00


by Paul D. Maley



The following four accounts have all been contributed by dedicated amateur astronomers; conclusions reached are my own. Data I have received consist of still photos and video tapes taken by various people during the dramatic reentry of STS-107 over the western and central United States On February 1. Anomalies that appear based on my interpretation of more than a dozen shuttle reentries that I have seen in the past years include brightenings in the luminous trail and point-like objects. Anyone reading this web page who has similar images that they would like to see posted here should please contact me at pdmaley@yahoo.com. Please provide detailed descriptions of your location, equipment and observation.

30 August 2003: With the publication of the Columbia Accident Investigation Report Volume 1, much is now known about the results of the reentry. The report quotes that tens of thousands of pieces of debris fell during the reentry process and that although no injuries occurred there were some close calls. The report cites “a 600 pound (273 kg) piece of a main engine dug a 6-foot (1.8 m) wide hole in the Fort Polk (Louisiana) golf course, while an 800 pound (364 kg) main engine piece which hit the ground at an estimated 1400 miles (2251 km) per hour, dug an even larger hole nearby. Disaster was narrowly averted when a piece of debris landed between two highly explosive natural gas tanks set just feet (less than 1m) apart.”

12 February 2003: See the link to Fred Bruenjes account from San Diego just above the ground track graphic.

11 February 2003: Rob Matson reports that he has analyzed the information from three observer reports below and is able to come to the conclusion that the piece of debris seen in photos #4 and #5 by Jay Lawson is exactly the same piece of debris as videotaped by John Sanford in photos #8, #9, and #10. See also the ground track depicting approximate observer locations relative to STS-107’s reentry path.


B. Blasdell of Kanab, Utah provided the following account:

First, let me say that I am a pilot and I know the aerodynamics of flight. As the Shuttle came into view from the West, my wife with binoculars, and me -eyes only – watched it and saw the DEFINITE separation of the left wing.  I could see the shape of the wing as it came off- perfectly.  I can still see it today in my memory.  This is well before the NASA report of the craft breaking up.  All the shots of the videos don’t show the wing coming off. 

I watched the wing -eyes only- come off to the right (left wing) of the shuttle and then trail behind the craft.  Then the shuttle started to rotate -it looked as to roll over and start to spiral a couple of turns from the loss of the wing. “


Photos have been received from Jay Lawson who observed the reentry from Sparks, Nevada. He is located north of the ground track so the shuttle moves right to left in the images. He used a Sony TRV-37 camcorder in “nightshot” mode. Jay’s video was manually held and followed the orbiter for about 70 seconds; there is no precise time reference but based on the knowledge of observer locations and where it passes Venus, Rob Matson is able to conclude that the piece is released at about 13:54:34. As STS-107 passes close to Venus in the following shots a flash is seen followed by a small piece of debris which is shed behind it (see arrow in final frame). Jay extracted the frames which are shown in both negatives and positives.


#1 Venus is the left most bright dot. Nothing happens yet.


#2 Here the orbiter flares briefly.


#3 A possible piece of debris appears in the wake of the trail where the flash occurred.


#4 Now as the orbiter moves to the left a separate point like piece of debris is clearly visible.


#5 Venus is now the rightmost bright dot and the debris piece remains very close to it as marked by the arrow.

After viewing this video tape, I can also spot what appears to be at least two other brightenings that may correlate with events observed by Baldridge. The brightening is similar to that in photo #3 above where no clear piece is seen as being shed.


Here are two more sets of photos, the first two are from actual prints while the latter three are stills from video. The two reporting satellite observers, Rick Baldridge, Campbell CA and John Sanford, Springville CA are to be commended for their competency and diligence in recording the reentry and also in submitting the information to NASA. Both are experienced observers and were very diligent in observational methods and reporting.

The following photographs were taken with a 16mm and 28mm lens respectively by amateur astronomer Rick Baldridge observing the reentry of STS-107. It is probably pertinent to pay attention to brightenings in the trail as seen below. Such brightenings are abnormal as compared to previous missions and seem to be supported by the brightening from the Lawson images above. In the trailed time exposures below the observer is south of the ground track so that the shuttle is moving left to right.

#6 The bright star Vega appears as the bright blue star in the upper right of the frame. The yellow orange clouds to the west and northwest reflect sodium vapor lights from the San Jose area. Red dots under clouds are TV tower lights. The star Beta UMi appears orange above center under the ‘y’ in ‘reentry’. Polaris appears faintly blue below Beta Umi but above the Shuttle path. Brightness variations must be carefully interpreted near start/end of track since clouds were visible at the extremes. ISO 400 Kodak Elitechrome film, f2/8. One minute exposure started at 13:53:25UT on February 1, 2003.

 #7 ISO 400 Kodak Elitechrome, f/3.5. One minute exposure started 13:53:25UT.

Rick also made a video tape which appears to record 4 pieces breaking off at 13:53:46UT, 13:53:48, 13:53:57 and 13:54:03UT.

The following are stills by John Sanford who shot Digital Hi-8, 20x tracked video from lower California. The bright object is the orbiter, while the fainter small object is a piece being shed around 13:54:34.7 which is clearly later than Baldridge’s pieces. The small speckles in the photos are noise from the video.


#8 A piece of debris is seen to appear behind the orbiter.


#9 The piece continues to fall behind.


#10 A final view of the same piece.

Here is a brief account of John’s experience:

“I got up about 1330UT …after hearing… that they were predicting a dawn reentry pass over California. Never having seen a Shuttle reentry much less with this favorable geometry, I decided to try it. I set the Sony DigHi8 on manual focus and a tripod and took the IR blocker out, sacrificing color for some sensitivity. The camcorder was in “Nightshot” mode. Sure enough, about 1354UT, the fireball appeared in my NNW coming up over what we call the Blue Ridge. I aquired it at normal zoom and zoomed in to about 15-20x, the limit of my optical zoom. The object went through some tree limbs and as soon as it was in the clear, something happened. There was a very brief flash, and some material came out into the slipstream. Within one second, a bright pointlike object seprated from the fireball and fell back, observable for maybe a second or so. It appeared to flutter as if it were a flat panel of some sort. The main fireball continued across the northern sky, reaching perhaps 15d altitude before going through the top of another tree and down behind Moses Mountain to my ENE. I noted the trail was incandescent and lasted several seconds, long enough for me to zoom back, switch to NS2 for more sensitivity, and reframe. It was slightly foggy and I noted the fireball was perhaps brighter than I expected, maybe -2 to -3 magnitude. I went back into the house and watched with growing horror the NASA control room (on NASA TV) as they realized the s/c was not going to reach Florida. Then in about 15 minutes the terrible footage from WFAA in Dallas showed the multiple fireballs in the early morning sunlight, and I knew it was all over. Then I looked at my footage and realized there were events of import on it. I was taping at 13:54:34UT, which I believe was when they actually lost contact with the data and comm channels.”

An additional observation was reported from Ramona, CA. See SAN DIEGO PHOTO AND REPORT. This report from Fred Bruenjes shows the flash followed by a piece being shed at 13:54:37 with an accuracy of +/-2 seconds. It is very likely that this piece is the same as that observed by Sanford and Lawson. What is remarkable is that the elevation of the pass is around 5 degrees above the horizon.

Rob Matson has constructed a more up to date projection of the trajectory of STS-107. The resulting graphic follows showing the approximate positions of the three video observers. Note the dashed lines leading to the angular orientation of Sanford and Lawson when they apparently observed the same event. The times are local PST.

Other observations were apparently made from Arizona and Owens Valley, CA of pieces coming off between 13:54:13 to 13:54:57 UT but I have received no other information. However, on February 4 video from a TV station in Phoenix, AZ was shown on the ABC network in which one large fragment is clearly seen falling backward in the shuttle wake. The video was shot near Flagstaff, AZ.

The following images are from Chris Valentine’s camcorder record as seen from 35 miles north of Flagstaff AZ. They are copyrighted by Chris Valentine 2003.

13:55:18 UT 

13:55:53 UT 

13:55:55 UT 


Photos obtained from various internet sources follow:

Scott Lieberman photo


 A reentry image from Utah


 Dallas TV image from WFAA


Hundreds of pieces of debris have been located, many in bizarre and hard to reach spots and others right out in the open. Here is a sample of a few of these located within or around the town of Nacogdoches; origin of photos is from various places on the internet.


 possible remains of cockpit window frame


 Larry Epps stands exactly where we was when the debris piece in front of him hit the ground


Tourists examine a guarded piece which landed at a gas station


 pieces fell on ranchland


A very charred piece of debris


An astronaut’s helmet


 An STS-107 patch found where it lay


 Cargo compartment piece


A flat piece of debris found in a field


  Fuel cell



  An unidentifeid piece of debris


 Writing on tank




 Typical small piece found near a street



 Remnant of landing gear


Tire piece


Large debris found in Rusk, TX


Curved metal piece with a quarter as comparison


Piece found in a parking lot


Debris found in a yard


Debris found in leaves


Strut (long view)

107piece7Strut (top view)


Junction box

107piece5Tubular debris


 A tiny piece in a handicapped parking spot

107piece3A small piece found where it landed in the street

debris 30

Shoe sole believed to be STS107 debris


Wing piece


Wing tiles leaning against a fence