This node is being created in expectation of imminent contributions concerning Space Transportation System mission 107, in light of the events of February 1, 2003. At approximately 8:00 am Central Time today, NASA Mission Control lost voice and telemetry contact with Orbiter Columbia as it passed over Dallas, Texas enroute to a scheduled landing at Kennedy Space Center at 8:16 am Central Time (NASA Mission Control, in Houston, TX, is on Central Time).

STS-107 was to be the last non-ISS mission for the shuttle fleet for some time to come. It carried a crew of seven:

Please keep these brave people and their families in your thoughts during the media frenzy which has aleady commenced.

This flight carried the SpaceHab module for onboard scientific experiments and observation.

Potentially Relevant Events

At launch, video footage apparently captured images of a large chunk of debris falling from the External Tank and striking the leading edge of the orbiter's left wing. This is not an unprecedented phenomenon; the external tank typically sheds both ice (caused from cryogenically-cooled fuels condensing atmospheric moisture before launch) and occasionally pieces of the spray-on, ablative insulation that protects the tank from heat during launch and ascent.

NASA is reporting (later on on 2/1) that Shuttle telemetry before the signal was lost showed the left wing suffering from the loss of hydraulic sensors, lost tire pressure and intense heat.

According to CNN, NASA personnel had reviewed the images after Columbia reached orbit and concluded that no significant damage was done to the orbiter. This event will no doubt be reviewed intensively during the coming investigation.

Debris from Columbia is being reported across several hundred square miles of Texas. Parts came to rest on highways, in backyards, and in a couple of cases on the runway at Nacogdoches airport. CNN is reporting the discovery of human remains in at least one location. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration weather radar imagery for the area and time of the breakup clearly shows a spreading, highly-reflective trail along the shuttle's projected flight path - whether this is due to atmospheric heating and plasma (which would be normal) or due to parts of the shuttle falling, I am not sure; however, the picture is sobering.

Orbiter OV-102 Columbia

Columbia is notable for a few reasons. It was the first orbiter to reach space, as part of STS-1 launched on April 12, 1981. This makes it the oldest active orbiter. In addition, it had (until recently) been restricted from making ISS missions due to its heavier weight and due to its lack of the proper docking port. STS-107 was its second flight following a seventeen-month refurbishment and upgrade designed to allow it to reach the ISS while still carrying useful payloads, as well as to upgrade the docking port and perform safety and functional improvements on the shuttle systems. STS-107 was its twenty-eighth flight.

Terrorism Concerns

To be clear: This part is my analysis, not news coverage. At the time of loss of communications with the orbiter, Columbia was at an altitude of approximately 200,000 feet (63,000 meters) travelling at a speed of at least Mach 6 (some sources say Mach 18). There are no operational military weapon systems (other than nascent U.S. National Missile Defense systems and related SRBM-capable defenses such as the Patriot, the Israeli Arrow, and perhaps a few other high-capability SAM systems) that are capable of even attempting to engage a target moving with these parameters. In addition, any tampering with the orbiter would have been discovered; the shuttle is perhaps the most-inspected piece of hardware in human history every time it flies. NASA's continual discovery of problems as small as slightly-deformed 1/8" fuel tubing should be testament to this fact.

Space travel is dangerous, people. At the speeds and energy the shuttle was at when it was lost, an error in attitude of less than two degrees from straight can cause the events we have seen. The outer surfaces of the orbiter reach maximum temperatures above 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit just 30-40K feet above the altitude at which it was lost; the Shuttle is built of aircraft aluminum, protected only by external tiling and material coverings. If these are damaged, airflow of that speed and temperature can destroy the aluminum aircraft skin and systems underneath it in fractions of a second.

Given all this, please, recall that these are risks the astronauts who flew on Columbia (and who fly on all other craft that leave and re-enter the atmosphere) are well aware of. Their bravery, untrumpeted on the news recently as Shuttle flights became 'routine' again following Challenger and STS-51L, comes from their continuing to do their jobs in full knowledge of the fragility of both their craft, themselves and their tools in the face of the forces which which they must contend.