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Sunday, 2 February, 2003, 14:23 GMT
Turning point for US space effort
Space shuttle Columbia lands in 1998, AP
Columbia had completed 27 missions before the crash

Every disaster can be a turning point, a time to analyse what went wrong and what to do differently to prevent it happening again.

The space shuttle is an impressive vehicle with a good safety record but space travel is dangerous and unforgiving. It always will be

The loss of Columbia is just such a turning point for the American space effort.

But rather than being thrown into confusion by the loss of Columbia, Nasa's roadmap for the future is clear.

Nasa has been in this position before with the Apollo fire and the Challenger explosion, and will undoubtedly be in the same position again sometime in the future.

Open in new window : Shuttle disaster
How Columbia broke up over Texas

It has adapted and thrived before, and will do so again. The problem will be found and fixed and the shuttles returned to service.

But Nasa will now, for the first time, have to think seriously about what takes astronauts into space after the shuttle is phased out, which could come sooner than once thought.

Ascent to orbit

Getting into orbit requires the barely controlled liberation of vast powers and energies.

Columbia lifts off on 16 January, AP
A piece of foam hit the shuttle's left wing shortly after lift-off
Getting back to Earth from orbit means that the energy imparted to the space shuttle to get it into space must be dissipated.

Launch and re-entry are the most dangerous times. If something goes wrong then it can go wrong quickly with no possibility of mitigation or survival.

Despite space travel looking so easy and almost routine, the astronauts know these harsh realities, even if the politicians and the PR people have forgotten them.

It is these realities that must be uppermost in the minds of everyone involved in the aftermath of the Columbia tragedy. They will help put the disaster into perspective.


Space travel will never be 100% safe. The space shuttle has had 113 missions with the loss of the crew on two of them.

Considering what it does, this is a good safety record and there is no shortage of people willing to accept these odds.

Trailing wing

Less than six hours after the tragedy a picture was beginning to emerge of the sequence of events that led to the destruction of Columbia.

First flight: 1981
Orbiting speed:
17,500 mph
Landing mass: 105 tonnes
Crew (for this mission):7
The disintegration of Columbia began with overheating of the trailing edge of the left wing, possibly because of the loss of insulating tiles.

The pattern of signals from the temperature sensors embedded in the skin of the shuttle is telling engineers the way the wing overheated and fragmented.

Television images of the break-up of Columbia will tell them more as will the debris collected from the ground.

One urgent task is to look at the wings of the remaining three space shuttles to see if there are any indications of failure points or fatigue that have either been missed, or are at too low a level to be detected, by previous inspections.

This could help engineers pinpoint the particular components from Columbia that they want to find and examine.

The exact flight path followed by Columbia will be scrutinised to see if it deviated in any way or introduced extra stress on the shuttle.

No replacement

Unlike after Challenger in 1986, Nasa will not have the option of replacing the lost spacecraft.

SHUTTLE CREW
Commander Rick Husband, US
Pilot William McCool, US
Michael Anderson, US
David Brown, US
Kalpana Chawla, US
Laurel Clark, US
Ilan Ramon, Israel
In 1986 Nasa had an extensive depository of spare parts and a spare airframe that could be modified and upgraded into the shuttle Endeavour which flew its first mission, a dramatic rescue of a stranded communication satellite, in May 1992.

Discovery, the oldest of the surviving shuttles has been in service for 18 years. Atlantis has been in use for 17 years.

When the shuttle does fly again, as fly it must, three shuttles will have to do the job previously given to four.

In recent years, Nasa had been talking of using the shuttle fleet for another 20 years. They rated them capable of performing about 100 missions each.

As Columbia perished on its 28th mission, this analysis must be revisited.

The disaster will spur the frequently stalled efforts to develop a replacement for the shuttle.

This has started and stopped several times in recent years but it is now clear that it must be done.

During the 1990s, Nasa spent billions of dollars investigating a radical design to replace the space shuttle.

The X-33 vehicle would have had a dramatic "lifting body" design propelled by a type of rocket that had never been used in spaceflight. But engineering problems led Nasa to abandon the project 2001.

Even with a new initiative for a replacement for the space shuttle, the next generation of reusable space vehicles is at least 10 years off.

Return to flight

Nasa realises that it is imperative for the US space effort to return the shuttle fleet to operational status as soon as possible.

Map showing approximate area where shuttle debris has come down, BBC
The three teams of inquiry already established will want to work quickly and thoroughly.

If what happened to Columbia is known and fixed, this return could be relatively quick, though it is likely that the launch rate will begin slowly and ramp up to previous rates over a period of a few years.

Overall, Nasa will keep to the harsh facts of space travel.

The space shuttle is an impressive vehicle with a good safety record but space travel is dangerous and unforgiving. It always will be.


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02 Feb 03 | Americas
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