Slipping the Surly Bonds of Earth
I was a freshman in high school in January of 1986. I remember being in the hallway between classes and passing Jonathon Silberlicht — a name I probably would have forgotten long ago otherwise — one day when he asked me what I thought about the Space Shuttle. He seemed rather glib, and I hadn't heard any news yet, so the weight of the question didn't sink in and I don't think I even bothered to say anything to him.

So within the next hour every TV in the school was on and we were being given an opportunity to talk about the Challenger disaster even as much of the news of what had happened and how was still trickling out. It was really significant, since that was the flight with Christa McAuliffe, and the launch had been in the news and somewhat relevant to high school students.

I remember quite a bit of the aftermath, when there were discussions of whether the Shuttle should have been designed with an escape hatch (chances are such an accident wouldn't have been survivable even if there were one), whether the Shuttle program would be restarted, the early talk of O-rings, all of it. I especially remember that President Reagan — if nothing else a great orator — had quoted from High Flight in his address to the nation, and since I'd been a night owl and a fan of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy I knew that poem well from the signoff on the Tulsa PBS affiliate (KOED).

Because of this I'm not looking forward to the inevitable statement from George W. Bush. Reagan's address was well-written and well-delivered. Bush will be lucky to have a good speech (I haven't been all that impressed so far) and it's going to be beyond his abilities, I fear, to carry it off with any sort of gravitas.

What happened this morning is a terrible disaster, and my heart goes out to the families of the astronauts on Columbia and the dedicated team at NASA that has made the miracle of space travel seem so routine. It's a testament to the hard work of NASA's engineers over all these years that space travel has been as safe as it has.

I hope that the investigation into today's accident provides some clear insight into what happened and how. I'm sure that all of the debris that is recovered (the debris field at this writing is being reported as over 120 miles long) will be painstakingly reassembled in the same way that jet aircraft are reconstructed, in order to give investigators as much information as possible about what happened, when it happened, and how. At this point I admire the lack of speculation on the part of TV commentators as to how the accident transpired, and the quiet comment from the White House that there is no reason to believe that there was a threat against the mission. Nicole has already pointed out that the usual suspects are coming up with conspiracies, but I'm hoping that dies down rather quickly (although I suspect that it won't).

Being a tinkerer and a thinker myself, I immediately found myself trying to come up with potential explanations for what happened outside the realm of the wacky (missiles, lasers, sabotage, etc). The crucial bit of information, I suspect (as do the TV commentators, it seems) is that some insulation is believed to have fallen off a booster rocket during Columbia's launch and struck one of the wings. This brings up a couple thoughts:

  1. What was the temperature at launch? Could the insulation have come off the booster as a result of a difference in thermal expansion between the insulation and the material underneath it? There was a very clear causal relationship between the temperature at launch and the reliability of the O-rings on the booster rockets (In hindsight anyway, and yes, I did read the Tufte, and the causal relationship is clear if you see the right chart (excerpt from Visual Explanations)) in the Challenger disaster, so I think that's worth investigation.
  2. If the insulation struck the wing, as is believed, what sort of damage did it do, exactly? NASA apparently believed the damage was minimal, but now the evidence would seem to indicate otherwise. If the thermal insulation on Columbia's wing was compromised, in what specific way did it fail? Did it merely chip away and allow one portion of the wing to get hot enough to suffer a structural failure (heat, more than anything else, being the cause of the collapse of the World Trade Center)? Or did the insulation peel away starting from the point of damage, causing enough of a difference in aerodynamics that Columbia vibrated itself to pieces?
  3. What will happen to the International Space Station, the future of which had already been in doubt?

Only time and investigation will tell. I hope that there are clear answers and not just assumptions. As expensive and dangerous as it is, I really would like to see man continue to tread "The high untrespassed sanctity of space." I'll leave punching the face of God ("She of Little Faith" was on just yesterday) to Homer Simpson.

(11:52 EST, Sat 1 February 2003)