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  Space shuttle: Questions and answers
Updated 03 February 2003, 08.16

Why did the shuttle break up?

Nasa says there is no indication that the tragedy was caused by anything on the ground.

There are already some theories: these include the failure of the heat-protection tiles that shield the shuttle on re-entry.

No-one knows for sure. It will take some time for experts to sift through the evidence.

What was the Columbia shuttle's mission?
It was on a scientific mission to carry out a series of biological, medical and physics experiments.

What will Nasa investigators do now?
Nasa will want to gather all the fragments and piece them together.

It could be a long task - the shuttle was made up of more than a million separate parts.

Experts are also looking in detail at the images of the shuttle falling to Earth.

What does it mean for the other shuttles?
The shuttle fleet will be grounded while what happened is investigated.

After the Challenger disaster in 1986 the shuttle fleet was grounded for more than two years.

But there's lots of pressure to fly again as soon as possible - the shuttles are the main supply ships for the International Space Station (ISS).

What does it mean for the whole American space programme?
President George W Bush has vowed that US space exploration will continue despite the tragic loss of Columbia and the deaths of its crew.

What about the crew on the space station?
The shuttles were regular visitors to the ISS.

But the station is also visited by unmanned supply vessels.

The crew have enough supplies to last for several months.

And even with its shuttles grounded, the astronauts aboard the space station could be picked up using Russian spacecraft.

Can the ISS crew make a quick escape?
If necessary, a Russian Soyuz "lifeboat" spacecraft attached to the space station could bring the three astronauts onboard back to Earth at a moment's notice.

When are the current space station crew due to come home?
The current crew arrived at the station in November and is scheduled to return to in March.


More InfoBORDER=0
Sci/TechWho were Columbia's crew?
Sci/TechRemembering the 1986 space disaster
Sci/TechFacts about space shuttles
PicturesPictures: Space shuttle history
Find OutFind out about space
Find OutTake a tour of the space station
ChatYour thoughts on the loss of the shuttle

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