Picking up the pieces

Print edition : February 28, 2003

The U.S. tries to come to grips with the tragedy and NASA begins an investigation that could have an impact on the shuttle progamme.

in Washington

A piece of what is believed to be the underside and rear of the left wing of Columbia near Nacadoches, Texas. During lift-off, a piece of insulation hit Columbia's left wing and NASA officials said that it could have smashed into the thermal tiles.-RICK WILKING/REUTERS

SHORT of 16 minutes to what should have been a perfect touchdown in Florida, it turned into a national and international tragedy some 207,000 feet (about 63,100 metres) above the State of Texas. Barrelling at a speed of almost 20,000 km an hour, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated, taking with it six Americans and an Israeli national. Of the six Americans was 41-year-old, India-born Kalpana Chawla, who did both her motherland and her adopted land proud.

Kalpana Chawla and Rick Husband, the shuttle commander, were the only two among the crew who had been to space earlier; the other five were rookies, but all fully qualified and trained astronauts with varied experience. In space they had completed some 80 experiments and were returning with their findings, after a 16-day mission. Touchdown in Florida was to be at 9-16 a.m.

In the wake of the fiery end came the debris, whose field was initially thought to be only in the States of Louisiana and Texas. One week into the tragedy, the authorities were looking for the remains in two other States as well - Arizona and California. With this came an impression that the spacecraft may have broken up earlier than was originally estimated.

Columbia, the oldest shuttle of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), rolled out in 1981 at a cost of $1 billion. It was Columbia's last and 28th flight, but what is being stressed is that in the last four decades of space flights in the U.S. there has not been an accident during descent or landing. In the context of questions about the age of the shuttle, it is being pointed out that Columbia had gone through a major retrofitting exercise just over two years ago.

A nation that slowly woke up to it on the morning of February 1, found to its disbelief a rapidly unfolding tragedy of enormous proportions. "Columbia, we see your tire pressure messages and we did not copy your last," was one of the last messages that went out from Mission Control in Houston. Commander Husband responded by saying "Roger". His voice was cut off abruptly with the sounds, "eh, buh....." Then there was some static, followed by the deafening silence that signalled to Mission Control specialists that something had gone terribly wrong. From NASA officials one of the immediate messages was that the tragedy was not caused "from the ground". But this was just the beginning.

One of the first things that came to everyone's mind was terrorism, but such a fear was quickly discounted. There was no doubt a heightened security interest in Columbia, which carried an Israeli astronaut. Ilan Ramon was the first from the Jewish state to go up in space. But soon, unnamed law enforcement officials were in the media saying that nothing "troubling" was to be found in the sequence of events in terms of intelligence.

Intelligence officials quickly rejected any missile attack theories too: Columbia was too high up in space and travelling too fast to have been brought down by a missile.

But the nation went through the motions of a crisis and a calamity. Ironically, only the week before had the country observed the tragedy that had hit the space shuttle Challenger, which disintegrated barely a minute after lift-off in 1986 killing seven people.

President George W. Bush rushed back to the White House from Camp David by road. He had been informed of the tragedy by his Chief of Staff, Andrew Card. Bush had also spoken with the top administrator of NASA, Sean O'Keefe, and several members of the families of the lost astronauts. Senior administration officials, including the Vice-President, the Secretaries of State and Defence, the National Security Adviser and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were notified, too.

"The Columbia is lost; there are no survivors," the President told the nation. "The same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home," Bush said. And a President who has seen his tenure hit by the horrific terror acts of September 11, 2001, and who is currently in the midst of the crisis over Iraq also assured the nation that the loss of Columbia did not mean writing off the space programme. "The cause in which they died continues. Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on," the President told the nation.

Five days later at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Bush again recalled the achievements of the seven astronauts, their dreams and contributions. "Our nation shares in your sorrow and in your pride," the President reminded family members and others gathered there. "We remember not only one moment of tragedy but seven lives of great purpose and achievement." And in the process of speaking of each one of the seven lost heroes, the President paid glowing tributes to Kalpana Chawla - known to many simply as KC.

"None of our astronauts travelled a longer path to space than Kalpana Chawla. She left India as a student but she would see the nation of her birth, all of it, from hundreds of miles above... Kalpana's native country mourns her today and so does her adopted land," the President said in tribute to the Indian-American who is widely respected in the community for not only her achievements but also her humility and her simple ways.

IT was a different and yet a known story on the ground - stunned and grieving NASA officials on the one hand going about the first tasks of trying to convince themselves and others that every precaution had indeed been taken to ensure the safe return of Columbia. Yet the difficulty was in convincing themselves and others that "everything" has indeed been factored in, given that a post-mortem is a painful process to the specialist and the layperson alike. And disasters such as the one involving Columbia bring comments from every angle - from those who had long argued that space shuttles were nothing but a waste of time and money, to those who immediately jumped on NASA for trying to cut costs, in the process jeopardising the safety of the shuttle. This suggestion was of course, immediately sought to be shot down by the powers-that-be.

Even tragedies bring about souvenir-hunters - and Columbia STS-107 was no exception. The authorities in Texas arrested at least two persons for being in possession of Columbia material and it is generally believed that there could be dozens more who picked up such "souvenirs". NASA believes that any and every bit of the shuttle could hold vital clues - and hence the imperative to turn over whatever that is found.

The really exacting aspects of the post-tragedy procedures are yet to get off the ground in any meaningful fashion but the first steps have been announced. At least three different investigations would be conducted. One is by a panel of experts from the U.S. Air Force and Navy along with colleagues in the Transportation Department and other federal agencies. NASA has named its own panel. The third team will come from Congress. Bush has not said if he would appoint a Commission on the lines of what Ronald Reagan did in the aftermath of the Challenger tragedy. In fact, some people want Bush to appoint an independent Commission to look into all aspects of the shuttle programme, not just the immediate disaster.

But the bottom line is clear - no one expects to rush into a finding, which in the present circumstances is going to be a painstaking task. The question is whether future shuttle flights are going to be held up until after the causes of Columbia's end are known. The next flight of a shuttle had been planned for March 1, followed by five flights in 2003.

Many theories are being advanced by experts, and also by those who follow the shuttle programme out of sheer human interest. But from the technical person to the common observer, one of the first things that came to mind was the matter of the protective tiles that covered the aluminium casing of the shuttle. These tiles have long been of concern and interest as critical components. One of the points made relate to an episode that took place during Columbia's lift-off on January 16, when some debris from elsewhere in the shuttle was seen to have "slammed" the left wing. Engineers had ruled out any danger that the incident posed to the shuttle upon re-entry, and even now there are those who ask if the foam in the debris could have caused such damage to the wing as to have led to the tragedy.

Another line of inquiry relates to a major heat build-up in the tyre section of the shuttle that eventually caused it to rip open the mid-section; and one of the theories that is being looked into by NASA is that of a general structural failure leading to the disintegration of the spaceship upon re-entry. "We have got some more detective work. But we are making progress inch by inch," was one of the first comments from shuttle programme manager Ron Dittemore.

In fact, at the end of the first week, NASA was making the point that a high-definition military photograph taken from a powerful Air Force telescope in New Mexico was "not very revealing". The photograph, taken in the final moments before Columbia came apart, was being studied. "It is not clear to me that there is something there," remarked Dittemore.

Bush has said that the space programme must go on, but others believe that NASA and the federal government must take a deep breath and pause before the next shuttle with astronauts heads out, either just to outer space or to the International Space Station. One of the critics is Gregg Easterbrook, who minces no words while calling for a shutdown in the absence of a meaningful policy on the matter. Writing in Time, the Senior Editor of the New Republic and a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington said: "For 20 years, the cart has been before the horse in U.S. space policy. NASA has been attempting complex missions involving many astronauts without first developing an affordable and dependable means to orbit. The emphasis now must be on designing an all-new system that is lower priced and reliable. And if human space flight stops for a decade while that happens, so be it."

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