In early 2003, the space shuttle Columbia burnt up due to a failed leading edge on the wing from an external tank foam strike. All seven astronauts were killed. Yet, some pages of Ilan Ramon's diary, which were aboard, survived readable. How is it possible that the diary was fine and readable, and yet the shuttle burnt up, and killed everyone?

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    $\begingroup$ It was a chaotic situation. $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2022 at 20:35
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    $\begingroup$ But, how did they survive re-entry. And how were they recovered at all, let along not broken by the landing. $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2022 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ As far as "how were they recovered at all", an enormous force of my co-workers walked over every inch of the debris field. $\endgroup$ Feb 7, 2022 at 2:08
  • $\begingroup$ There was an awful lot of debris over a huge area (take a look at space.stackexchange.com/questions/1805/…). There were large teams involved in the recover of debris for a very long time. I was in northern Dallas county at the time, every couple of weeks there'd be something about a large piece of debris being found somewhere between here and east Texas or even Louisiana $\endgroup$
    – Flydog57
    Feb 8, 2022 at 23:20
  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – called2voyage
    Feb 9, 2022 at 15:34

1 Answer 1


The shuttle did not "burn(t) up". It broke up. In the chaotic environment following the breakup, aerodynamic heating of individual items varied greatly.

The main body breakup, referred to as the Catastrophic Event (CE) in this document, occurred after Mach 15. It was described as follows

The conclusion was that the forward and midbody orbiter segments separated at the CE. The CE is actually the start of a period of several seconds in which the orbiter underwent a major structural breakup.

The subsequent breakup of the crew module is referred to as the Crew Module Catastrophic Event (CMCE).

The CMCE started with the separation of the forward fuselage from the crew module, exposing the entire crew module to the thermal effects of entry. The main forebody debris field included all recovered crew module pressure vessel structure, almost 90 percent of recovered forward fuselage structure, and around 90 percent of the crew module contents. This indicates that the failures of the forward fuselage and crew module were closely associated. Ballistic analysis confirmed this assessment. .... Forward fuselage debris shows localized thermal damage and very little evidence of debris-debris interaction. Large portions of structure were recovered intact. Material deposition on the interior of the forward fuselage debris was not significant. Reconstruction of the forward fuselage debris supports a structural failure from starboard-to- port and forward-to-aft.

Analysis of thermal vectors on numerous debris items showed multiple independent heat vectors across the structure. For example, many recovered middeck floor panels were nearly pristine with paint still visible, while floor panels from immediately adjacent locations had melted materials deposited on them and other signs of high thermal exposure (figure 1.1-31).

enter image description here

After breakup, individual items experienced their own trajectories and heat exposure. This heat exposure can vary enormously with ballistic number and other effects such as shadowing from other debris items and orientation of the item into the heat vector. The lack of consistent directional heating vectors on crew module debris suggests heating was due to individual item trajectories and random exposure during breakup rather than a major breach resulting in directional heating.

(emphasis mine)

Source: Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report

Other fragile material recovered intact:

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ That bit about "ballistic number" is the key: paper has a lot of surface area, a lot of drag, and very little mass. What little kinetic energy it has dissipates in a hurry without heating the paper very much. (I suspect that if you threw a paper airplane backwards off the ISS, it would re-enter and land just fine.) $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Feb 8, 2022 at 1:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark your point is valid, but the diary was found as a three-ring binder, not loose pages. wired.com/2008/10/dairy-survived $\endgroup$ Feb 8, 2022 at 2:13
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    $\begingroup$ Still a lot of surface area, a lot of drag, and very little mass. In junior high, I never managed to throw my binder more than a few feet. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Feb 8, 2022 at 2:16
  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – called2voyage
    Feb 9, 2022 at 15:36

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