Nation mourns Columbia disaster

By Staff Writer
February 6, 2003

Irwin Thompson/Dallas Morning News/KRT

Just past 17 years to the day that the spaceship Challenger exploded upon liftoff, the United States space program and citizens are once again mourning the loss of its astronauts, as the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over the skies of the Dallas, Ft. Worth, Texas area early Saturday morning, just 16 miles before its scheduled landing in Cape Canaveral, Fla., at the Kennedy Space Center.

Debris rained down across four states, including Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Reports of shuttle debris from as far away as Arizona and California are also being investigated, as officials combed through wooded areas in search of the Columbia’s nose cone. Heat resistant tiles lay smoldering on a Texas horse farm, while the charred torso, skull and thighbone remains of one astronaut lay strewn about a country road. All over the nation’s midsection, wreckage of the Columbia reached as far out as the pleas of NASA officials to the public, urging bystanders not to handle the shuttle remains. On one country road, a charred astronaut helmet lay next to the NASA mission astronaut emblem off of a uniform.

Officials are still unclear as to the cause of Saturday’s accident. However, early reports and video images are leading officials to believe that a falling piece of debris from one of Columbia’s fuel tanks struck the underside of its left hydraulic system, causing heat resistant tiles to fall off. This caused the excessive heat of re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere to break the shuttle apart.

The crew of the Columbia consisted of seven people, Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla (an Indian born, American citizen), David M. Brown, Laurel Blair Salton Clark and Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space. Each crew member left behind family, and in some cases children. Ramon was the son of a Holocaust survivor, and a national hero in Israel.

Both NASA and President Bush say that the space program will go on. The families of the victims told NASA officials that they do not want their loved ones to have died in vain. At a memorial service Tuesday, Bush said, “America’s space program will go on.” Bush went on to say that the seven astronauts “fulfilled their dreams.”

Dr. Joseph Smith, assistant professor of chemistry, applied to NASA to be a mission specialist. Smith addressed criticisms that the American public became too complacent with the space program. Smith said that it is human nature to become complacent, but that NASA tries hard to put safety first.

“There’s always going to be things that happen to remind us [about the dangers of space travel],” Smith said. However, on the future of the United States space program, Smith said, “I think we’re still in a long term project that still has enormous support.”

Smith also mentioned that the International Space Station has helped to connect countries on another level. It fosters “healthy political relations,” Smith said. “The space station serves as a means to strengthen our relationship with other people,” Smith said. “It is unique in that it brings us away from a lot of our daily, petty concerns.”

Space travel also puts the world into perspective for many astronauts. “The space program does not discriminate,” Smith said. “In space, we’re all equal. We have to work together.”

Currently there are two cosmonauts and one astronaut inhabiting the International Space Center. With the United States grounding their entire fleet of shuttles, many people are wondering how they will get home. For now, Russia is agreeing to pick up the slack.

Smith also said that to halt the space program would be a tragedy in itself. “To stop now is as much a tragedy as the accident itself. There’s going to be costs along the way.” Smith also said that, “It would be foolish to think that mistakes won’t be made. You have to balance the risk and the reward.”

Smith helped explain the re-entry process, equating the shuttle coming into the atmosphere to skipping a stone across water. If you drop a stone into water, it will sink. However, if you skip a stone across the surface of the water, it will glide across. A space shuttle follows much the same process on its re-entry, timing itself to enter Earth’s atmosphere certain angles.

As far as the fleet of shuttles NASA has now, most experts agree that the shuttles will not be re-evaluated because of their ages. Many say that NASA is a conservative organization that seems to live by the motto, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

On the crew, their sacrifice and the future of the space program, Smith said, “We can’t stop now, because then life isn’t worth living.”

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