Columbia Lost During Landing Approach, Crew of Seven Feared Dead

This morning the space shuttle Columbia was approaching Florida for landing when it apparently broke apart. The last data was received while the Columbia was about 200,000 feet up. Debris have been reported in various counties in East Texas.

The crew was a cross section of America and the world. Col. Rick D. Husband served as commander. The pilot was Cmdr. William C. McCool. Payload specialists included: Lt. Col. Michael P. Anderson; Dr. Kalpana Chawla, an Indian-American aerospace engineer; and two physicians, Capt. David M. Brown and Cmdr. Laurel Clark. The final member of the crew was the first Israeli astronaut, Col. Ilan Ramon.

Speculation on what may have occurred is already underway. Undoubtedly, an investigation will be called for. After the Challenger explosion, investigations and redesign work led to a 2 1/2 year hiatus of flights. One often mentioned idea in early news coverage involved the launch phase where debris from the external tank struck the orbiter. Since this kind of debris damage is usually very minor and has occurred in other flights, it was deemed not likely to be serious. However, if the damage was greater than expected then the shuttle structural integrity could be compromised and thus vulnerable to the extreme heat and pressures of re-entry.

Like most of my generation, I've grown up following the space program since I was a child and though it seems routine, we know it isn't. I admire the people who willingly choose to do their missions even with the risks that it involves. Space travel and research will always be risky. People will ask if the benefits are worth the risks. The scientific spin-offs and technologies from the space program become the fabric of our daily lives. But I suppose one should not under-estimate the intangible benefit of helping us to dream, of inspiring courage and of giving us a vision of our world as single planet hurtling through the vast emptiness of space. Let's offer a prayer for comfort to their family and friends as they experience their grief and if possible, a prayer of thanksgiving for the courage and example of the lost crew.