It is hard to believe that it has been 8 years since we lost the crew of Columbia as she/they were returning to Earth from a successful science mission. They were just minutes from touchdown at Cape Kennedy when Columbia broke apart de to losing her left wing.
The crew and ship were doomed at liftoff when a chunk of foam from the External Tank broke off and hit a reinforced carbon-carbon panel on the leading edge of the left wing. Upon re-entry superheated air entered the wing, deformed the aerodynamic capability of the left wing and Columbia broke apart due to the resulting aerodynamical stresses. The shuttle and the remains of her crew were strewn over a wide swath of the southern U.S.
On the NASA web site today: "STS-1, Columbia's maiden voyage, launched on April 12, 1981, and was the inaugural flight in the Space Shuttle Program. Columbia and its crew were lost during STS-107 mission in 2003. As the shuttle lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 16, a small portion of foam broke away from the external fuel tank and struck the orbiter's left wing. The resulting damage created a hole in the wing's leading edge, which caused the vehicle to break apart during reentry on Feb. 1."
Sky Guy in VA