February 3, 2003

Students, Professors Mourn Shuttle Loss

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The Cornell community, along with the rest of America, continues to mourn the loss of the seven astronauts who died when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart upon reentering the Earth’s atmosphere last Saturday morning.

Mission commander Rick D. Husband, Dr. Laurel Salton Clark, pilot Cmdr. William McCool, Dr. Kalpana Chawla, Dr. David Brown, Lt. Col. Michael Anderson and Col. Ilan Ramon died as a result of the break-up.

Many members of the Cornell community are affiliated with NASA through the astronomy, physics and engineering departments, including the New York Space Grant Consortium. While all expressed grief over the events, they echoed President Bush’s message that the space program, including the International Space Station efforts, will continue in the future.

“I think it’s a major disaster of human loss and loss of an extremely vital part of the space program,” said Robert Richardson, vice provost for research and the Floyd R. Newman professor of physics. Richardson was named to NASA’s International Space Station Management and Cost Evaluation Task Force in 2001.

During an already-tense period for many Americans, this disaster created feelings of sorrow for the families and loved ones of the one Israeli and six American astronauts who died, as well as many questions for NASA researchers.

As the country watched, the shuttle appeared as a shining light in the sky which then spilt into three separate pieces forty miles above the Earth. At the same time, debris from the break-up began to fall over parts of Texas, according to The New York Times. Some of the astronauts’ remains have been discovered by investigators as of yesterday.

Planning to land at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the space shuttle lost contact with NASA officials at Mission Control in Houston.

Five hours later President Bush announced to the country at a White House press conference that “the Columbia [was] lost. There are no survivors,” as reported by the Times.

Reminiscent of the Challenger explosion 17 years earlier, the Columbia was a manned space mission that received much attention for the diverse group of astronauts on board. Col. Ilan Ramon was the first astronaut from Israel, and also on his first mission. Ramon’s presence led to increased security at the time of the shuttle’s takeoff on Jan. 16, according to the Times. The other six were Americans, each with diverse backgrounds in the space sciences.

The Columbia shuttle, which was on its 28th flight, carried a mission whose goal was to “carry out experiments in the areas of astronaut health and safety, advanced technology development, and Earth and space sciences,” as defined by the original NASA overview for the mission.

NASA officials have not yet determined a cause for the break-up; however, a number of theories have emerged as possible explanations. Most recently, NASA announced that temperatures on the shuttle’s left side increased dramatically as the shuttle began its reentry into the atmosphere.

Officials suspect that the shuttle began rolling to the right to compensate for the temperature change as it made its final descent into the atmosphere, according to the Reuters News Service.

“In the coming weeks we will know what produced this [crash],” Richardson said. He also noted that NASA will examine the cause of the break-up in order to ensure it never happens in the future.

“NASA is very careful of its analysis of things that go wrong with its manned space program. If [the cause] were something rubbing against the spacecraft, NASA would change their procedures to make sure it’s corrected,” Richardson added.

Archived article by Carlos Perkins