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Columbia and the Space Program

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By BunnyClark
February 3, 2003

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The most terrifying sound during a space mission occurred yesterday--silence, then static. "Roger, uh �� " came a reply from the shuttle, and then there was silence, as if the astronaut had been cut off in mid sentence, and then just static from 200,000 feet above Texas. My deepest condolences to families, friends, and co-workers. I feel a connection to these people on more than one level. The rituals of sorrow with a sense of loss are on the hearts of Americans. The astronauts know the risks; catastrophe can and does occur.

It is because of the space program that many things we are able to offer in the field of healthcare came about through space research, a little thought of benefit. The Columbia Orbiter was special in my mind and heart as is the space program. You see I had a conversation with the Columbia while it was parked at the World's Fair in New Orleans as I stood less than 30 feet from that massive structure; I have a tendency to personify objects. Like when I come home after being out, I always ask my house if it missed me, saying I sure missed you.

What did the Columbia tell me? As I gazed over the beautiful, 20,000 bright tiles and design, it became apparent that loving care had been given to this older than you might think Orbiter. This vehicle is home for some 14 days for the astronauts. Standing and viewing this space machine was an awe-inspiring event for me.

The Columbia was some 22 years old; it's final mission number 28. Old age will most likely not be the reason for the disaster. Routine maintenance performed in the last year and half included dismantling and totally rebuilding the Orbiter (not the aluminum shell), all tiles replaced by hand. The tiles are the heat protection needed for re-entry. Technically, all systems on board are rebuilt.

What about the next generation technology for shuttles? R&D has not come up the answers needed, so keeping the old shuttles in shape is the direction taken by NASA. And what companies might be involved in this R&D? The current program is run under the auspices of the United Space Alliance, primarily Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and indirectly Rockwell International. Another prominent company is Allient Techsystems. The aerospace industry is in the spotlight. Investigations will be conducted by an internal review of mission STS-107, as well as an outside inquiry by an independent "mishap investigation board." Government officials said that there were no indications of terrorism.

What is found in the history of NASA is not much different than that in many corporations. The shuttle has experienced design failures, cost overruns, fraud and mismanagement with contractors, many problems being hidden. Inquiries from this latest incident will likely reveal an aging workforce, management shortcomings and major cuts in the maintenance workforce as the budget has suffered for about nine years. I would never imply that safety was ever not the top priority of NASA.

The science from NASA's space flights is embedded in our imaginations with hope for the future and for a better world. Space research is needed for quality of life; CAT scans came about because of space explorations. Maybe from this disaster, the space budget may not continue with cuts, some 40% in the past.


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