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How Kroll Ontrack Recovered the Data Stored on Space Shuttle Columbia’s Hard Drives

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February 1th, 2003, after 17 days in space, Space Shuttle Columbia was set 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.

6 months after the crash, engineers found what was left of a hard drive from the shuttle. NASA sent this hard drive to Kroll Ontrack in hopes of recovering as much data as possible.

John Edwards, a skilled engineer from Kroll Ontrack, and his team, were entrusted with this 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 had 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. ”

Indeed, the media was partially shredded and charred. It was also vulnerable to the environment in which it had remained during several months.  The dust seal greatly deteriorated by the intense heat when it entered in the atmosphere and was exposed to all kinds of particles that were likely to damage it and subsequently make it irrecoverable.

Kroll 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.

Let’s see how this 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 was designed 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 “spared” from shock and dust.

These rotating metal plates were carefully removed from the initial drive, cleaned and placed in a 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 published more than 5 years later in the April 2008 issue of Physical Review E.

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