“A bad day” is the euphemistic phrase NASA folk use to describe catastrophes like the Shuttle Columbia met over Texas Saturday morning. But like most disasters to complicated machines, or countries, the bad day may have begun days ago, 16 in the case of old Columbia.
On launch, films showed a chunk of foam or ice flaking from the big external tank and whopping the shuttle’s left wing on the way down. Did it damage one of the heat-absorbing tiles? NASA worked that potential problem with a couple of expert teams and decided it was not a “safety concern.” For future reference it asked the Columbia astronauts to film the big orange tank as it fell away from the shuttle more than 8 minutes into the flight, to learn more about the wayward chunk. Photos no man will ever see.
Shuttle program manager Ron Dittmore says there was no way the astronauts could have inspected the wing by taking a space walk, and no way they could have repaired any damage; they don’t take a tile repair kit with them.
The liftoff damage theory is pure speculation. The last prior event which cast the future for the Columbia occurred on the morning of re-entry: a 2 minute 58 second burn of the deorbit engines that sent it drifting back to the clutches of the atmosphere which, in the moments to come, would tear it and its crew to pieces. The spacecraft skin temperatures reached 3,000°F as it plowed into sensible air molecules 207,135 feet above Texas. It was in a rolling bank dictated by onboard computer when Mission Control lost left wing sensor telemetry and moments later, all contact. Commander Husband had said “Roger,” assenting that the sensor loss was noted in the cockpit, then something garbled….
It was like the others. The bad day had prior roots. The Challenger launch in 1986 had been delayed by bad weather, cold temperature. And above the Cape, 73 seconds into boost phase, it exploded. But its fate was sealed early, a faulty O-ring in a solid rocket booster had allowed a burn-through on the pad at ignition. The sequence was pre-ordained. Cold weather launch criteria would have to be changed.
It was unthinking design that earlier, in 1967, saw three astronauts, White, Grissom, and Chaffee, burn to death in a static test of the Apollo spacecraft that was designed to take men to the moon. But designed with a complicated door that could not be swiftly opened, and a wealth of interior velco that was not fireproof, and wiring at the foot of the astronauts that could be kicked loose.
Ed White’s Air Force brother, John, attended his funeral at West Point, above the groaning ice in the Hudson. Then he went to Southeast Asia, flew an F-105 over Laos, and was never heard from again.
Why, reporters ask, do they do it at all? The answers are as numerous as the stars in our flag. In coming days they will mention again “the surly bonds of earth” and “touched the face of God.” And they will not, as President Reagan did not in his Challenger crew eulogy, credit the author of those words, John Magee, the young American son of missionaries, born in China, who joined the RCAF in 1940 and was killed in a Spitfire in 1941. But not before sending his folks a little poem, “High Flight,” he’d written on the back of an envelope.
Why do they do it? The answer also lies again in a kind of prophecy, years before the fact. A man who thought a lot about flying wrote: “Once you have flown, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you long to return.”
He was Leonardo da Vinci. A nation called to mourn once more knows he was right.