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Don’t Cry For Columbia!

George P. Kurien

I couldn’t remember if it was in the late seventies or the early eighties; all I can remember now is that it was a long time ago. I remember clearly, though, that it was on the CBS Evening News that I saw it for the first time. I remember watching an all excited anchorman, Walter Cronkite, reporting the news about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s newest space venture. His eyes twinkled, and he even had that rare smile on his face which he usually keeps for his famous signing off line when he used to say, ‘And that’s the way it is…….

The idea of a space shuttle was a totally new and different concept for me, just like it was for a lot of other people. I may have missed the first few minutes of the story that day, which could have been the reason why I had a hard time understanding how the shuttle worked. The graphics that Cronkite showed in the corner of the screen during the story was also confusing to me. It showed the picture of the now all-too-familiar space shuttle, piggy backed on a specially rigged Boeing 747 aircraft. Having missed the first part of the report which explained how the shuttle was launched into space, I somehow got the impression that the orbitor was to be taken aloft piggy backed atop a 747, and somehow launched into space from the airplane. I thought long and hard how such a launch was even possible, since I knew that it took a tremendous amount of force to propel the shuttle out of the strong gravitational field of our planet and into the edge of outer space. It sounds silly now that I even thought like that at that time. The graphics of a ‘double decker’ aircraft shown on the screen, which I’d never seen before in my life, might have clouded my questioning attitude and influenced my thought process.

A couple of days later, the news about the space shuttle appeared on news broadcasts again, and this time I listened closely. I finally figured out the general operation of the spacecraft. I also found out at that time that the piggy back configuration that they had previously shown on television depicted how the space shuttle was transported from its Californian landing port to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in case it was unable to land in Florida for any reason such as bad weather.

It didn’t take long before I became a fan of the Space Shuttle program. I watched the first launch in 1981 of Shuttle Columbia with a tremendous amount of excitement and anticipation. Would it work like the rocket scientists said it would? Would there be enough thrust for the rockets to accelerate the craft to escape velocity? If it did, would the spacecraft stay in orbit for the duration of the mission at the prescribed altitude? Or would it lose altitude after each rotation around the Earth, and finally fall into the Earth’s atmosphere? And how about reentry? I knew that our atmosphere was very hostile to any astral body that falls onto our planet. The atmosphere was there for a reason. Mother Nature placed it there for a specific purpose! It is the atmosphere that acts as a shield around all the inhabitants of the Earth and keeps us from being torn into pieces every moment of our existence. Is such an impartial security blanket going to selectively permit our space shuttle from burning up on reentry? Well, they said there were myriad heat resistant ceramic tiles on the underside of the craft which would protect the orbitor and its inhabitants from becoming charcoal within the first few minutes of reentry when the temperature of the shuttle reaches well over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s all well and good, but how much of it can we really trust? And how about landing? They said the orbitor was going to be nothing but a glider without the use of any engine power during its descend and the final landing at Cape Canaveral. How can it be so? How can an aircraft which starts its descend somewhere over the Pacific glide across the breadth of the entire United States without any external power and safely land on a predetermined runway in Florida? What if it completely overshot the runway, and the State of Florida for that matter, and ended up in the Atlantic Ocean? Or worse yet, what if it touched down prematurely somewhere in Texas or Louisiana? Assuming that all these would work by some rare stroke of luck, how do they know when to de-orbit? Even if they did it at the precise moment, how about the effects of air currents in the Earth’s atmosphere which could play a major role in the trajectory of the Columbia during descend?

I had a hundred more questions, all of which were answered fully and to the best of my satisfaction when I watched on television the picture perfect landing of Columbia after its maiden voyage, which lasted a few days. Everything went like clockwork. I heard later that a few heat resistant tiles were either missing or damaged from the effects of the atmospheric friction, but our rocket scientists said they were all within the ‘design basis’, and that there was no cause for alarm. I believed them.

The Shuttle Program was off to a great start. A few uneventful years passed, and a few more orbitors were added to the shuttle fleet. We ferried people and material from the Earth to the outer space and back several dozens of times. We walked in space. We brought supplies to the International Space Station, and brought its inhabitants back to Earth. We refurbished the Hubble Space Telescope, which gave us a clear view into the past of the Cosmos. We conducted scientific experiments in zero gravity. We studied animal behavior in the weightlessness of outer space. We were the proudest of people. Whenever I got the opportunity, I bragged about my friends working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Shuttle Program. Until then, I was thinking that the Nuclear Power industry, which I was part of, was the highest of high tech businesses, but the numerous achievements of the Shuttle Program humbled me. I found out I was wrong.

Then came the terrible news one day in January of 1986. I was in my office on the 20th floor of the Mid Continental Plaza building in downtown Chicago. One of my colleagues told me that the Challenger blew up during its launch. It was a sad day in my life, as it was in the lives of billions of people here at home and abroad. Scientists, military men, family men and women, and a teacher lost their lives in a horrific flash of rocket fuel. The thick white plumes of smoke against the backdrop of the blue Florida skies got burned into America’s psyche for ever. The Challenger disaster caused a momentary halt to the Shuttle Program, but NASA and the rest of America bounced back, and we picked up where we left off.

Another catastrophe hit the Shuttle Program early this month almost exactly seventeen years after the Challenger accident. This time it involved Columbia which has, over the decades, become synonymous to the Shuttle Program. This was not only a loss to the United States or NASA, but also to the scientific community of the entire World. The crew was so diverse that it could happen only in the United States. It included the first Israeli citizen and the first Indian national, although for Kalpana Chawla, it was her second space mission. The life of our first reusable spaceship did not have to end that way, but the truth is that it did. I only hope that its loss will not permanently scar NASA and put an end to the Shuttle Program. The men and women of Columbia were real heroes. They would have wanted us to continue our quest for knowledge. They wouldn’t want us to stop it under any circumstances. They wouldn’t want us to cry for Columbia, but to rejoice in its successes and celebrate its life. We owe at least that much to the brave men and women of Columbia. Scientific achievements are never cheap, and our space heroes were fully aware of that when they suited up for their fateful mission. There is a price that we must pay every step of the way. Two disasters are two too many, and the lives of fourteen people are fourteen too many, but humankind always learned from its mistakes. I don’t believe that the first wheel that was invented was perfectly round. It had to be ground to perfection over a period of a few millennia, and even now we haven’t achieved total perfection. It is a necessity that humankind will have to eventually conquer the new frontier of outer space. It’s only a matter of time. The way we are multiplying our population, polluting our air, poisoning our water, and destroying our environment, we cannot expect to live on this Earth for ever. All other species that became extinct before us were so selected by Nature. The humans seem to want to take a different path altogether. The way we are proceeding, we will have the dubious distinction of selecting ourselves for extinction.

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