we have loved the stars too fondly
News is coming in about the break-up of the Space Shuttle Columbia, as it was re-entering the atmosphere over Texas, about 2 hours ago. Even though the Shuttle carried the first Israeli astronaut, terrorism is not considered a serious possibility. If there was going to be an attack, it would have been during takeoff or (less likely) landing, not while the Shuttle is 40 miles up and travelling at 17,000 miles per hour. The possibilities being discussed fall into two main categories:
- a control failure during the critical phase of re-entry, when the shuttle needs to hit the top of the atmosphere at a precise angle. This is handled by computer when possible, but with the pilot trained to take over if required. Get it wrong, and the shuttle is subjected to fatal forces and temperatures.
- failure of the shuttle’s structure under normal conditions. The Columbia was the first working shuttle, and the oldest. We’re hearing reports that one or more insulation tiles fell off the external tank and struck the wing during the launch, though no damage could be seen. NASA has the ability to examine the shuttle by telescope while in orbit, and we may hear more on this later.
I’m interested to hear what Jerry Pournelle has to say about this, since he has been a major (but constructive) critic of the Shuttle program over the years, and an active member of the group designing a Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) craft. This design has no disposable parts, no bits that need to separate during launch, and should be more reliable and less expensive to operate.
I hope this disaster doesn’t result in a serious setback in the world’s space programs. The financial costs may be high, but worth it. As for the human cost; many more people die every day, in road accidents, wars, and disease, than have died so far in the quest for space. The importance of the Frontier on human consciousness is not to be underestimated.
We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.