Its space programme suffered a catastrophic setback when all seven astronauts were killed when the shuttle broke up on re-entering the Earth's atmosphere 20 years ago on February 1, 2003.
It was the second shuttle disaster after the Challenger explosion of 1986 which also killed the crew and led to sharp criticism of the safety culture at NASA.
The shuttle fleet was grounded for two and a half years and it sparked a major shift in American space flights.
In 2004, president George W. Bush announced that the eye-wateringly expensive programme would be retired.
For years after the last shuttle flight in 2011, NASA found itself dependent on Russia for transport to the International Space Station (ISS) until Elon Musk's Space X began flying passengers there in 2020.
As well as the Moon, Washington is now preparing for a manned mission to Mars, scheduled tentatively for the late 2030s or early 2040s.
- 'Trails of smoke' -
Columbia broke up at 203,000 feet (61,900 metres) over eastern Texas just as the mission controller in Houston was talking to Columbia commander Rick Husband.
"To Columbia, here is Houston... we did not copy your last" message.
After a moment, Husband replied: "Roger but..."
After a brief crackling noise, contact was lost.
Columbia disappeared from radar screens at 9:00 am (1400 GMT), 16 minutes before it was due to land.
The flaming debris from the 80-tonne craft was caught streaking across the sky over the southern US by local TV stations, with parts scattered over Texas and Louisiana.
Bob Molter from Palestine, Texas, told National Public Radio how he saw the shuttle break up in the sky.
"There was a big boom that shook the house for more than a minute, and I went outside because I thought there had been a train accident on the nearby line.
"But there was nothing, and then I looked up and saw the trails of smoke zig-zagging, going across the sky."
- Heroes -
Columbia was the oldest shuttle to fly in orbit.
When it took off on its 28th flight on January 16, 2003 for a 16-day mission to carry out experiments it had been in operation for over 20 years.
Flight STS-107 was launched under extremely tight security in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks and due to the presence on board of Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon.
Bush cut short a stay at the Camp David presidential retreat and raced back to Washington following the tragedy. In a televised address he hailed the crew, two of whom were women, as heroes.
A probe revealed that the shuttle disintegrated due to damage caused by a piece of foam from the external fuel tank that took a chunk out of the orbiter's left wing during liftoff.
This left it unable to withstand the extreme temperatures generated by re-entry.
- End of shuttle programme -
The shuttle programme was born in 1972 under president Richard Nixon and went on to become the major focus of US human spaceflight ambitions over the next four decades.
The fleet also acted like space trucks, carrying more than 1,500 tonnes of equipment to help build the first space telescope, Hubble, and the International Space Station.
After the Columbia disaster, NASA underwent sweeping changes aimed at improving its culture and safety.
The agency resumed shuttle flights in July 2005, with Discovery, then Endeavour and finally Atlantis continuing to fly missions to the ISS until 2011.
Rocket Science News at Space-Travel.Com
|Subscribe Free To Our Daily Newsletters
Design a spacesuit for ESA
NASA announces finalists in challenge to design future astronaut food
NASA names first person of Hispanic heritage as chief astronaut
UAE 'Sultan of Space' grapples with Ramadan fast on ISS
Poland's SatRev signs on for future Virgin Orbit flights
Columbia disaster that scuttled the space shuttle
First step toward predicting lifespan of electric space propulsion systems
SpaceX successfully launches 53 Starlink satellites
Mars Helicopter at Three Forks
Perseverance completes Mars Sample Depot
Making the Most of Limited Data: Sols 3278-3279
The faults and valleys of a Martian volcanic highland plateau
China's Deep Space Exploration Lab eyes top global talents
Chinese astronauts send Spring Festival greetings from space station
China to launch 200-plus spacecraft in 2023
China's space industry hits new heights
OneWeb and Kazakhstan National Railways to work together
Inmarsat-6 F2 satellite arrives on board an Airbus Beluga in Florida for launch
ATLAS works with AWS to advance federated network and expand ground station coverage
Ovzon receives first SATCOM-as-a-Service order from Spain
Matrix multiplications at the speed of light
D-Orbit launches ION's first mission into a midinclination orbit
IBM and NASA collaborate to research impact of climate change with AI
Ghostly mirrors for high-power lasers
Will machine learning help us find extraterrestrial life
AI joins search for ET
A nearby potentially habitable Earth-mass exoplanet
Two nearby exoplanets might be habitable
NASA's Juno Team assessing camera after 48th flyby of Jupiter
Webb spies Chariklo ring system with high-precision technique
Europe's JUICE spacecraft ready to explore Jupiter's icy moons
Exotic water ice contributes to understanding of magnetic anomalies on Neptune and Uranus
|Subscribe Free To Our Daily Newsletters