How Ontrack Recovered the Data from Space Shuttle Columbia

Wednesday, June 21, 2017 by Antoine Valette

What Exactly Happened to Space Shuttle Columbia?

February 1th, 2003, after 17 days in space, Space Shuttle Columbia was to land at the Kennedy Space Center at 9:16 am and complete the STS-107 mission. It was approximately 9:00 am when the disaster occurred. CNN live broadcasted the shuttle disintegrating above the state of Texas. The cause of the crash was due to a piece of thermal insulation foam that came off the shuttle just 80 seconds after takeoff.

Six months after the crash, engineers were able to find the remains of a hard drive from the shuttle. NASA sent this hard drive to Ontrack in hopes of recovering as much data as possible.

John Edwards, an engineer from Ontrack, and his team, were took on the mission. Edwards stated:

"I have witnessed many disasters in my career, some of which have led me to retrieve data from equipment that has suffered in the most extreme conditions (floods, fires, collisions, etc.). One day, my supervisors contacted me and explained to me that my team and I were to recover data from a hard drive that was partially melted after passing through the atmosphere, dropped about 40 miles at phenomenal speed, and after having landed, remained on the ground for 6 months prior to being found. It was a very complex task and I must admit that when I first saw the drive, I wasn’t convinced that I could get anything out of it."

The Aftermath of Space Shuttle Columbia

Indeed, the media was subject to partial shredding and charring. It was also vulnerable to the environment in which it had remained during several months.  The dust seal suffered a devastating impact from the intense heat when it went through the atmosphere and had exposure to all kinds of particles. These were likely to damage it and subsequently make it irrecoverable.

Ontrack engineers put all of their resources to work and hope was still there. Indeed, after many hours of work, the engineers successfully recovered 99% of the data present on the hard drive.

How it was Possible

The rotating metal plates that stored the data and the parts that contained the collected data (240MB on the 400MB storage capacity of the drive) were in good condition for the most part. In addition, the NASA computer was running an operating system, DOS, which does not to disseminate data across the entire drive, but on the contrary, groups them to a specific location. It was this precise spot that was did not experience from shock and dust.

The next step was to carefully remove the rotating metal plates from the initial drive and clean and place new hard drive to recover 99% of the data collected in space by the crew.

The purpose of STS-107 was to collect information from biological experiments. These results were available more than 5 years later in the April 2008 issue of Physical Review E.