Breaking news. We’ve lost another space shuttle, the Columbia. It broke up on reentry. Reports from Texas say it looked like it came down in three pieces, and that there was a loud crash.
I don’t want to turn on the television. This hurts.
They were 200,000 feet up, doing about 12,500 miles an hour, when it happened.
Video footage of the shuttle passing over Dallas clearly shows it broken into three fragments.
More reports of fireballs and loud booms from (roughly) northeastern Texas. Reports are coming in from (incomplete list) Huntington, Palestine, New Boston, and Jasper and Moffett counties. That takes in a lot of territory.
A constantly updated summary of what we know so far, from Spaceflight Now.
NOAA radar picked up the debris track, terrible and clear, coming down in a WNW line just south of Shreveport.
1. Shock.Initial reports say there was an incident at the start of the mission—a bit of debris came loose and plonked into the heat shielding on one of the Columbia’s wings. At the time, it was thought that the damage didn’t warrant aborting the mission.
2. No, of course there weren’t any survivors.
3. No, of course it wasn’t terrorism.
4. More shock.
Note: It has not yet been determined that that damage caused the crash. It may or may not be possible to determine exactly what caused the crash. We’ll undoubtedly hear a lot more about this.
The Columbia was our oldest shuttle, in service since 1981.
John M. Ford
February 1, 2003 11:05 AM:
I am following this on NASA TV, and the language has a surreal detachment, even by the usual standard; this is a “contingency during descent.” “All information and data relevant to the descent is being secured by flight controllers.”
The screen shows Mission Control in Houston; people are in small clusters, two or three or four, there are graphs (unidentifiable from here) on the big screens. There’s no sound, but there rarely is. Every five minutes or so, the messages are repeated.
“Any debris related to the shuttle’s contingency should be avoided, due to the toxic nature of propellants.”
There’s one man in a gray sweatshirt who goes offstage left periodically, returns with a pile of papers, has a long discussion with two people at consoles, goes off again. The mood is visible in the way people walk, how they put papers on desks, what they do with their hands while they talk. Someone has just passed through carrying a backpack, slowing to watch the screens, but not stopping on his way somewhere else; what were his last ninety minutes like?
“Further information will be released as it becomes available.”
The oddest quality may be that, unlike the typical “breaking story,” the crisis is now over. There are no survivors, not at Mach 17. There is no suspense. There is nothing significant to report and it is very unlikely that there will be for a long time, after the planetary skid mark is swept up and the bits sieved for meaning, all the video images scrutinized for the dark spot, the scar shadow, that might be a sign.
Already I miss Richard Feynman.
February 1, 2003 11:10 AM:
One other thought. Two words: Space Station.
There are three humans waiting on board *Alpha* for a ride home. Yes, they’ve got a lifeboat attached; a Soyuz. But they’ve been in free fall for about four to five months now (I forget the exact figure). The rentry g-load for a Soyuz is gonna be 8 to 9 gees (versus the peak 1.5 g load during a Shuttle landing — Story Musgrave stood UP during the entire rentry of his last Shuttle mission). I worry about their ability to get back without a lot of injury.