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A shuttle crash, a global loss

For space-faring nations, fresh safety concerns.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 3, 2003

When the space shuttle Challenger exploded during its launch into crystalline skies over Cape Canaveral on Jan. 28, 1986, the loss of seven crew members and an icon of US technological prowess was a national tragedy.

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Saturday morning's loss of the shuttle Columbia and its seven astronauts nearly 17 years to the day after the Challenger accident was a tragedy of global proportions.

The international makeup of the crew, the condolences pouring in from capitals around the world, and the aging - and now-dwindling - fleet of orbiters, which serve as key strands in the lifeline between Earth and the International Space Station, highlight how closely many countries with space-faring aspirations have hitched their hopes to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Those links will now be tested. The stark images showing Columbia's lone contrail slowly splitting into many are likely to rekindle debates within the US and within its partner countries over the value of putting humans in space. The loss certainly will shine a spotlight on NASA's oft repeated commitment to safety and the willingness of the president and Congress to fund that commitment. And it is likely to reinvigorate efforts to build a replacement for the shuttles, which have become the DC-3s of spaceflight - an obsolete design that nevertheless has performed remarkably well.

Yet the global commitment to human spaceflight is slowly expanding. China selected its first astronaut early last month and is planning to send him into orbit, perhaps by the end of the year.

"We may see some politicians arguing that we shouldn't be sending people in to space," says Ray Williamson, a professor at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute in Washington. "But we're just as likely to see people saying that while this is a terrible tragedy, Columbia demonstrates that we're all in this together. We saw this happen after 9/11, when people said, 'this just strengthens our resolve to overcome these issues.' "

How fleet might be grounded

Much will depend on how long NASA takes to find and fix the problem that brought an otherwise flawless shuttle mission to a tragic close. The shuttle broke up 207,135 feet over Texas as it was traveling at 18 times the speed of sound, showering debris over two states.

Yesterday, NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe named a seven-member intergovernmental panel to conduct an inquiry into the disaster. The panel will be headed by (ret.) Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., who spearheaded the investigation into the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000. Congress is also planning its own set of probes, and the White House is considering an investigative commission, too.

Even though 9/11 remains fresh in memory and an Israeli Air Force colonel was one of the mission specialists, Mr. O'Keefe stressed that, on the basis of information so far, "we have no indication that the mishap was caused by anything or anyone on the ground."

Early speculation about what went wrong is focusing on the left wing of the spacecraft. During lift-off, a piece of foam insulation from the shuttle's main fuel tank broke off and struck the wing, perhaps damaging some of the heat-resistant tiles that protect the shuttle from a fiery reentry. Flight controllers got their first inklings that something was wrong when unrelated sensors on the left wing began failing over a seven-minute period just prior to losing all contact with Columbia. The crew was acknowledging the appearance of a failure alarm on its instrument panel when the orbiter's transmission fell silent.