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February 01, 2003

SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA is out of communication and lost from radar. It should have landed three minutes ago. At this point, it can only be presumed to have been lost on reentry. CNN has photos of it above Dallas, with no obvious problems.

Is there a connection with the presence of an Israeli astronaut? Probably not, but who knows?

UPDATE: Just saw CNN play the video from Dallas -- I was going earlier on something they had said that I guess I misunderstood -- and it looks as if it shows the Shuttle breaking up. A single trail breaks up into multiple vapor trails as it moves. They're gone. May they rest in peace.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Here's the CNN.com report. People have phoned CNN to report a "loud impact."

Here's Spaceflight Now's real-time update page. At the moment it notes rather optimistically that search and rescue forces are being deployed.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Now, more realistically, NASA is asking people to stay away from any debris that they find, as they may be hazardous.

"At least they got to go into space," observes my daughter. Well, yeah. It still sucks, though.

MORE: Why it's probably not terrorism: (1) if you planted a bomb, you'd want it to go off on takeoff -- that's when everyone is watching, and there's less time for stuff to go wrong, since you'd have to wonder whether a bomb would work after spending an extended time in space; (2) it's basically impossible to shoot down a reentering space shuttle because of its speed and altitude; (3) there are so many things that can go wrong with shuttles, especially Columbia, which is the oldest, without invoking terrorism. I suppose it's conceivable that a saboteur did some sort of subtle structural damage calculated to cause this sort of a failure while remaining unnoticed during ground checks, but that strikes me as unlikely for a variety of reasons.

From the video it looks like structural failure, followed by an explosion as the spacecraft disintegrated. That's unlikely to be the result of sabotage. Most likely it was failure in a wing spar or some other component, probably brought on by age and fatigue, though possibly caused by tile zippering and burn-through, or damage on launch. We'll see. No point getting ahead of things here, but plenty of reason to think it's not terrorism.

Prediction: This won't traumatize people the way Challenger did because (1) it's not the first time; and (2) we're at war now, and people's calculations of such things -- especially post-WTC -- are different. I hope, however, that we'll look at moving beyond the elderly and unreliable Shuttle now.

ANOTHER UPDATE: A woman from Huntington, Texas is reporting lots of debris and a "burning rubber" smell, after hearing a rumbling sound at about 9:15. Debris is reported, via police scanners, in Jasper and Moffett counties, too.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Boy, that didn't take long. Reportedly, a Canadian Broadcasting Company interviewer has blamed "American Arrogance" for the crash. Follow the link for more information, and a link to the CBC Ombudsman. I'll let you know if I find out more on this.

MORE: President Bush will be addressing the nation.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Here's a link to live streaming video from MSNBC.com.

Meanwhile ModerateLeft responds to the reported charge of "arrogance:"

Well, if this is arrogance--exploring space for science, pushing the envelope of the human experience, doing what our species has always done--then I support it. If it is arrogant to want to learn, we are arrogant. If it is arrogant to want to explore, we are arrogant. If it is arrogant to risk our lives for the possibility of a better future for all mankind, we are arrogant.

Mankind is arrogant. We believe foolish things--that we may one day cure cancer, that we may one day develop new forms of energy, that we may one day walk on Mars. We believe these foolish things, and we dedicate ourselves to achieving them. How ridiculous. How arrogant.

And people die for these things. And people are injured for life. The astronauts of Apollo 1, and the Challenger, and now, sadly, the Columbia have died for the arrogant belief that we can be more than we are, that we can walk on the moon, that we can touch the stars.

So call us arrogant for building the space shuttle. Call the men and woman who gave their lives today arrogant for believing they could fly to space and return to tell about it. But don't call us wrong. For this arrogance defines humanity. And I would rather our species be arrogant than afraid.

And that last is the sentiment that the critics can't understand.

UPDATE: Here, via The Corner, is Reagan's Challenger speech. And here is the text of the speech written by William Safire for Richard Nixon, in the event the Apollo XI crew was lost:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

I got it here, but the site loads slowly enough that I doubted it could handle the traffic from a simple link. Here's another in case that one is dead.

MORE: Rand Simberg has some useful observations. Excerpt:

The entire NASA budget is now in a cocked hat, because we don't know what the implications are until we know what happened. But it could mean an acceleration of the Orbital Space Plane program (I sincerely hope not, because I believe that this is entirely the wrong direction for the nation, and in fact a step backwards). What I hope that it means is an opportunity for some new and innovative ideas--not techically, but programmatically.

Once again, it demonstrates the fragility of our space transportation infrastructure, and the continuing folly of relying on a single means of getting people into space, and doing it so seldom. Until we increase our activity levels by orders of magnitude, we will continue to operate every flight as an experiment, and we will continue to spend hundreds of millions per flight, and we will continue to find it difficult to justify what we're doing. We need to open up our thinking to radically new ways, both technically and institutionally, of approaching this new frontier.

I had actually been invited to the Monday teleconference on the new NASA budget, but I imagine that's off now. Rand also has some useful speculation (which he's careful to label as such) about what might have gone wrong.

Meanwhile, the Times of India is proud of Indian-born astronaut Kalpana Chawla:

Kalpana Chawla, who is feared to have perished in the Columbia space shuttle mishap along with six others, had done India proud when she embarked on her first space mission on November 19, 1997.

The Karnal-born Chawla, the first Indian American astronaut, began her career at the Ames Research Center at Nasa in 1988.

A graduate in aeronautical engineering from the Punjab Engineering College she began work at the Ames in the area of fluid dynamics.

They should be proud. Ilan Ramon's presence has gotten more attention, but Chawla's presence is more representative.

MORE: Jim Flowers is setting up a blog (metablog?) that will track blogosphere coverage of the Columbia loss.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Canadian reader Peter Ash emails:

As a Canadian, I sincerely hope that no one in the States draws the conclusion that other Canadians share the bad attitude (and exceptionally poor taste) of the journalist you cited. Trust me, I'll be looking for verification that what was implied was in fact implied, which will be followed by an acidic letter or twenty to the appropriate parties.

I still remember where I was when Challenger happened (I was in grade four, no less). Several Canadian astronauts have ridden the Shuttle, and right now Canadians are feeling the pain with their cousins to the south. If you would, please do convey to your readers that the overwhelming majority of us feel as awful about this as all of you do.

On the technical side, you're right. The Shuttle is too old and rather poorly designed. In some ways it's surprising that this hasn't happened before. They're not going to get much out of the crash debris, the re-entry forces will have reduced most of it to charred lumps. Look for replays on the launch footage, and focus on the piece of insulation that fell of the External Tank and allegedly hit the left wing. There will probably be an inquiry as to why more wasn't done to check on the integrity of the wing before the space shuttle was allowed to re-enter. After all, if closer inspections revealed trouble, awkward as it would be, the Shuttle could have been left up in orbit until such time as another Shuttle, or a Russian Soyuz module, could have been sent up to bring down the crew.

Indeed, there could have been repairs made in space if need be, with the Shuttle eventually brought down by a skeleton crew or perhaps even on automation.

This is going to be somewhat problematic for the current occupants of the Space Station. NASA might have to pay the Russians to use one of their modules to bring them down, since they're likely going to ground the Shuttle fleet for a year or two. Oh, and obviously, look for that renewed initiative to send another teacher into space to quietly disappear. And given that NASA's only other two space tragedies (the Apollo fire and the Challenger disaster) occurred in late January, I would expect that there won't be any more late January/early February flights again for a long time. Not that the NASA scientists are suspicious, but the pilots who fly their Shuttles just might be.

All interesting. And, I should stress, we don't take the all-too-frequently anti-American twits of the CBC to represent general sentiment among Canadians. And I presume that if the reports about that remark are false, that will show up when the CBC ombudsman replies, or when transcripts appear. But I have no reason to doubt the report at the moment. LATER: Fraters Libertas blogs more mean Canadian comments -- from C-SPAN, this time.

MORE: A reader sends this link to a NOAA radar image that seems to show the debris trail. I don't know what else that long orange streak could be. LATER: I'm watching MSNBC, which says the streak is debris. STILL LATER: I should note that the plume looks so big and dense because it's full of vaporized/powdered aluminum and other metals, which will register far more strongly on weathe radar than the water vapor it's designed to measure. I mention this at the behest of several readers, in the vain hope of heading off conspiracy theorists.

ANOTHER UPDATE: It's a big deal in India, but not in France:

Just thought you might be interested in knowing that none of the major French channels (TF1, A2, FR3, M6) have, as of this moment, even bothered to interrupt programming to announce the Columbia news. I live in Switzerland and have been zapping back and forth between CNN, MSNBC, BBC and various Swiss, German and French channels. The French apparently haven't noticed yet (or don't care?)

Best regards from Lausanne,

James Wade

Hmm. That's representative, too. LATER: Bill from MerdeinFrance emails:

I'm definitely not one to defend the French but with regards to French news coverage of this disaster it is true that LCI TV (owned by TF1), 24 hour French language news available only to cable viewers, has covered this non-stop since the story broke. Other channnels, it is true, have not broken for any coverage.

So there you are. It's also showing up on the websites for many French TV stations and newspapers.


MORE: Here is a report of debris on the ground. Excerpt:

NACOGDOCHES, Texas (AP) -- Residents said debris, including bits of machinery and pieces of metal, were found strewn across the city Saturday morning, hours after NASA lost contact with space shuttle Columbia.

"It's all over Nacogdoches," said James Milford, owner of Milford Barber shop in downtown Nacogdoches. "There are several little pieces, some parts of machinery ... there's been a lot of pieces about 3 feet wide."

There's a photo, which doesn't look very impressive. But then debris isn't, usually.

David Janes has lots of links, including one that led me to this piece by Doc Searls on the Challenger tragedy, which is still very much worth reading.

Okay, I'm closing out this post. New developments will be reported above.