Space shuttle Columbia explodes over Texas
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By Chris Kridler and John Kelly
Space shuttle Columbia exploded over central Texas this morning on its way to Kennedy Space Center, apparently killing all seven astronauts aboard.
Navy Capt. David Brown
Pilot Willie McCool
Payload Commander Michael Anderson
Israeli Air Force Col. Ilan Ramon
Columbia's science mission had been delayed multiple times because of technical and other concerns. Like the other shuttles, it had welding repairs on its fuel-pipe liners last summer. The oldest shuttle, it completed a $145 million overhaul in 2001.
During launch there was a piece of the shuttle external tank that was believed to have struck the left wing and possible damaged its protective tiles, although Friday NASA officials said they did not think the damage was bad enough to cause any problem with the orbiter landing. The tiles protect the orbiter from the extreme heat of re-entry.
In the weeks leading up to launch, more people were concerned about security for this shuttle, which flew the first Israeli astronaut, than with technical issues. NASA has kept security high since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Ilan Ramon, 48, who was also an Israel Air Force colonel, reassured his family that flying on the shuttle was safe.
"I tell them maybe now, more than ever, after the last delay, that NASA is taking care, very, very seriously, of all the safety issues," he said, "and I feel like I'm going to fly as safely as I could ever be in the shuttle." The crew was commanded by Rick Husband, 45, making his second flight.
"Certainly my wife is more aware of the risks than my kids are, so we try not to play up those kinds of things more than necessary," the father of two said. "And the main thing we try to emphasize is the confidence that I have in all of the people who work so hard to make sure that we fly our missions safely." Many of the crew said the importance of spaceflight outweighed the risks.
They included pilot Willie McCool, 41; Michael Anderson, 43; David Brown, 46; Kalpana Chawla, 41; and Laurel Clark, 41. All except Brown were married, and among those married, all but Chawla had children.
The disaster brings to 17 the number of people NASA has lost in launch accidents or mission training.
The Challenger disaster claimed seven astronauts on Jan. 28, 1986, and the launch pad fire of Apollo 1 killed three Americans on Jan. 27, 1967.
Most astronauts talk with their families and deal with the potential for danger when they become astronauts, and sometimes before.
"Being a military pilot, they're sort of used to me being gone and used to me having a job that has a fair amount of risk associated with it," Anderson said before the launch. "...When it comes to space flight, I really don't tell them anything. I think they know I'm doing something I love to do. They understand there's risk involved." Yet there is no denying that risk is a worry for the aging space shuttle fleet, which first launched with Columbia in 1981 and many believed would fly through 2020. The cause of the accident must be determined, and the costs and risks must be weighed again. The three remaining shuttles will be grounded until the cause of the accident can be determined.
The impact to the International Space Station will be immediately evident. Hanging in the balance is the future of the station, which depends on the shuttle fleet not only for construction missions but for crew changes and supplies.
The current ISS crew of Americans Ken Bowersox and Don Pettit and Russians Nikolai Budarin is to be replaced on a mission in March. They must stay in space until a shuttle retrieves them or until a decision is made to send them home on the Soyuz capsule docked with the station. Their current supplies should sustain them for several months.
A NASA-built space plane that's on the drawing board wouldn't be ready until at least 2010.
The shuttle fleet was built for 100 flights each. The remaining orbiters, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour, have flown about a quarter of their designed life.
Not since Challenger has the space program been so threatened. But it was the human tragedy that gripped Kennedy Space Center, Brevard County and the world Monday morning. There was a sense of disbelief and horror that many had not felt since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
There is no escape system on the space shuttles, other than the parachutes astronauts wear in case the orbiter is forced to glide back to Earth but can't reach a landing strip. Given time, the crew can bail out through the orbiter's side hatch and slide down a telescoping aluminum pole.
Shuttle computers are also programmed to fly the orbiter back to Earth in a complex pattern if its engines fail or if there is sudden decompression in the cockpit.
There is no way for the orbiter or crew compartment to separate from the pair of solid-fueled rockets and external tank during the dangerous first two minutes after launch.
The astronauts' bright orange flight suits are designed to make spotting them easier in case of an ocean rescue.
At liftoff, the shuttle weighs about 4.5 million pounds. That includes some 500,000 gallons of volatile liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen used for the shuttle's three main engines.