Sunday, February 1, 2009

Missing Columbia

Six years ago today, Space Shuttle Columbia was lost as it re-entered the atmosphere following a 15-day research mission. It disintegrated over Texas less than 20 minutes from its scheduled landing at Kennedy Space Center.

I was leaving a church choir rehearsal that Saturday morning when I turned on the car radio and heard the heartbreaking news. I raced home to turn on the TV. The video of Columbia breaking apart into multiple streaks was devastating to watch. Debris rained down across Texas and Louisiana, and people were recovering pieces of the spacecraft for weeks afterward.

I couldn't believe that we had lost a Shuttle during re-entry; that part of flight seemed almost routine at this point. However, it made me recall Columbia's maiden flight, the very first Space Shuttle mission in 1981. When the payload bay doors opened and the cameras pointed aft, we saw to our horror that several thermal tiles were missing from the left OMS pod. There was serious concern about if and how the loss of this thermal protection might impact re-entry. Fortunately, she made it home safely that mission. Unfortunately, that helped start the perception that the Shuttles were able to take punishment to their thermal protection system and still make it back home okay.

Columbia's loss grounded the Shuttle for a year and a half until safety could be improved. Although the Shuttle is flying again, next year is scheduled to mark the end of its missions.

I've lived to see three fatal accidents on US spacecraft as well as several on Soviet capsules. I know that there will be more someday...but I hope not for a long, long time.

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