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Rest in Peace: STS-107 space shuttle Columbia

I slept in this morning and was awakened by Kerry phoning me around 11:30. She told me about the news reports on the shuttle disaster. My first thought was saddness for the loss of the crew, and deja vu to January 1986. After that, I thought, "this is the end of the shuttle program".

I'm sure over the next few hours there'll be thousands of people writing their own commentary on the tragedy, and I am one of them. My gut feeling is that a disaster of this magnitude will be fuel to the fire of criticism of NASA, of the manned space program. With the trend of budget cutbacks factored in, I fear that the will to continue the shuttle program won't be there.

On the other hand, there were several talking heads on the various television stations covering the story who suggested that this might be the catalyst for a renewal of the space program, and possibly even a replacement for the space shuttle. While these are unlikely, it's always nice to hope...

Of course all of the media reports about parts of the space shuttle being dangerous are just bollocks. The purpose of those announcements is to keep idiots from disturbing debris from the shuttle that could be evidence of its cause, or worse, to keep smarter idiots from scavanging souveniers. Yes, the propellants used in the manouvering thrusters are highly toxic, but there is relatively little of it on board, and the chance of any surviving the breakup and fireball is practically nil.

Everybody is wondering about the cause of the crash, and while paying lip-service to the requests to avoid speculation, lots of possibilities are being thrown around. What seems obvious to me, as a smart individual with an engineering background, but no direct space or aeronautics expertise, is that the shuttle was torn apart by aerodynamic forces and parts of it burnt up by the heat of reentry. Since it had already been in the atmosphere for little while, I guess the problem either happened during the descent, or else was originally very small and didn't cause a catastrophic failure until after some period of exposure to the reentry stress. At the speed an altitude of the shuttle, there is no way anybody could have bailed out, nor survived if they did manage to bail out, even though they did have parachutes. It is possible that some large portions of the ship may have survived, but not likely.

And to put to rest the fear-mongerers: even disregarding the official announcements about terrorism, it is easy to conclude that a terror attack is about as likely a cause of this crash as the annual rainfall in Tibet. I don't know who would think that sabotage or a missle could have don't this, but it's so absurd that I won't even bother to explain why.

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