Nasa's Columbia Shuttle Disaster

FOR LONG MINUTES, the crowd of family, friends, dignitaries and spectators stood at the end of the airstrip in Cape Canaveral, Fla., waiting and hoping for a familiar white speck in the distant blue sky. By the time the countdown clock reached zero, it was clear the reunion would never come. Just days after NASA marked the anniversary of its two previous fatal accidents, a new catastrophe - and more questions about the future of U.S. space exploration.

The grainy footage from television cameras on the ground told the story. The shuttle Columbia, streaking through the sky at 18 times the speed of sound, 207,000 feet above Texas on its way to the Atlantic coast, suddenly broke apart after re-entering the atmosphere. Sonic booms reverberated as thousands of pieces of burning wreckage fell to earth. The Columbia, the oldest shuttle in NASA's fleet, was returning home from a successful 16-day research mission, carrying a crew of seven - Americans Rick Husband, Michael Anderson, William McCool, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, and Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut. It was the craft's 28th trip since its inaugural 1981 mission, and the 113th flight in the shuttle program's 22-year history.

In a televised address from the White House, George W. Bush expressed his sympathy to the families of the dead and praised the courage of the men and women who assume "great risk in the service of all humanity." But the President vowed that the space program will not be stopped. "The cause in which they died will continue," he said. "Mankind was led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and a longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on." Bush offered his grieving nation comfort from the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing." The President said the same power is now caring for the souls of the seven crew members.

Although the presence of the Israeli astronaut aboard the Columbia had heightened security concerns about the mission, there were no indications that terrorism was a factor in the disaster. Tom Ridge, the U.S. homeland security director, became involved soon after NASA lost contact with the craft, but the extreme height and speed of the shuttle put it well beyond the reach of any surface-based missile.

After the Challenger explosion in January 1986, NASA spent 32 months investigating the cause of the disaster and improving shuttle safety. It seems unlikely there will be such a lengthy moratorium on flights this time around. There are currently three astronauts - two Americans and a Russian - on the International Space Station. Although they have a Russian-built escape capsule on hand, and enough supplies until June, NASA administrators have already indicated they would prefer to bring them home sooner, aboard another shuttle. Canadian ASTRONAUT Steve MacLean has been scheduled to join the crew of the space station in April, but it now seems unlikely that his launch will go ahead as planned. CANADIAN SPACE AGENCY officials would only say they are waiting for NASA to make a full assessment.

It will probably take months to pinpoint the exact cause of the accident. Early indications suggest a failure of the craft's heat shields, allowing its aluminum structure to disintegrate during re-entry. The investigation may focus on an incident during the shuttle's launch on Jan. 16, when a piece of insulating foam on the external fuel tank came off and appeared to hit the left wing. A NASA official had told reporters that engineers considered the damage to the wing to be no cause for concern.

NASA flight engineers say the first sign of trouble came at 8:53 a.m., 23 minutes before Columbia's scheduled landing, as temperature sensors on the left wing suddenly stopped sending data. Over the next seven minutes several other instruments registered rising temperatures and pressures before failing. Rick Husband, the shuttle commander, seemed to be transmitting a warning message when all contact was lost just after 9 a.m. "Today was a very stark reminder that this is a very risky endeavour, pushing back the frontiers of outer space," an emotional Bill Readdy, NASA's associate administrator for space flight, told reporters. "After 113 flights, people had a tendency to look at it as routine. It's not."

The disaster hit home in at least two other countries. Kalpana Chawla, who emigrated to the U.S. from India in the 1980s and was making her second trip into space, was considered a national hero in her homeland. Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli air force, was renowned for his exploits in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and his participation in the 1981 bombing raid that destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor. His inclusion in the latest shuttle mission was a source of tremendous pride in Israel - the country issued a stamp to honour the occasion, Ramon spoke with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in mid-flight, and Israelis followed the progress of the mission closely. Retired general Herzl Bodinger, commander of the Israeli air force from 1992 to 1996, was a long-time friend of Ramon and had gathered with others to watch the shuttle land. "From a personal point of view, this is a terrible loss," he said. "All his friends were sitting near the television screen, waiting to hear his first words. It was very tough - we all saw the shuttle disintegrate."

The loss will be tough on the nation as well, predicted Ron Ben-Ishai, a leading Israeli defence analyst. As the violence associated with the Palestinian uprising drags on and the country braces for a new Gulf war, Ramon's mission "was one of the few bright spots in the national life in the last 2 1/2 years," he said. "This just gives you the feeling that no matter what you do, you sink deeper in the mud."

At 16 days, the Columbia's mission was the longest in several years, and was specifically designed to get the most out of the 80 scientific investigations the astronauts on board were carrying out. Since space exploration began, it has probed both the planetary system and what has also been called the inner universe - the effect of near-zero gravity on the human body and the construction of new medicinal compounds. Columbia was no exception. Its research projects, all competitively selected, ranged from studying kidney stones and sleep habits to the more subtle understanding of cell biology and fluid in the brain.

Two Canadian projects, designed by teams of scientists from across the country, were part of the flight. One was basic science: researchers were trying to determine how to grow more perfect protein crystals in space, a potential building block in the creation of more powerful cancer drugs. The other was studying osteoporosis and other forms of bone disease - taking advantage of the peculiar effects of space travel wherein astronauts tend to lose bone mass.

For many at NASA, the tragic irony of the timing of the disaster will be one of the bitterest pills to swallow. Astronauts and flight engineers will now have three tragic anniversaries and 17 deaths to mourn in a one-week span. On Jan. 28, Rick Husband spoke from space, paying tribute to the three astronauts who died in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire on Jan 27, 1967, and the seven who died aboard the Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986. "They made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives and service to their country and for all mankind," said Columbia's commander. "Their dedication and devotion to the exploration of space was an inspiration to each of us."

See also AEROSPACE INDUSTRY; SPACE TECHNOLOGY.

Maclean's February 10, 2003