Out Of The Blue

Tony Beasley, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, got up early, along with his wife and mother-in-law, to watch the space shuttle fly overhead. It was a little after 5:45 a.m., California time, 7:45 a.m. at Mission Control in Houston, 8:45 a.m. at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Beasley could see the bright glow of the shuttle as it came over California's Owens Valley, bound for a Florida landing, still 60 miles high, traveling at about 20 times the speed of sound. Then he noticed some bright flashes, just small ones at first. Beasley idly wondered if the shuttle was shedding some debris as it entered the atmosphere. He didn't make much of it; he thought he recalled that space shuttles sometimes lost a few tiles as the craft burned into the atmosphere. But then he noticed a large pulse of light. "It was like a big flare being dropped from the shuttle," he told NEWSWEEK. "It didn't seem normal."

A few minutes later, a few hundred miles to the east in Red Oak, Texas, Trudy Orton heard a boom as she stood on her front porch in the brightening morning. She thought it was a natural-gas explosion. "My house shook and windows rattled." Her dog ran into the house and hid. A neighbor, loading her car, looked up and asked, "What on earth was that?" Orton looked up and saw a white streak of smoke across the sky. "It wasn't a sleek little straight line like the jets make. It was billowing like a puffy cloud."

At the Kennedy Space Center at 9 a.m., ET, the festive crowd--NASA officials, family members of the astronauts, local dignitaries and politicians, even a representative of the Israeli government, on hand to honor Israel's first astronaut, Col. Ilan Ramon--eagerly listened for the familiar sonic boom, heralding the arrival of the returning shuttle. But as the skies remained silent, the burble of chatter died down, then grew anxious. At about 9:05, mobile phones began to ring. Suddenly, officials were herding family members into buses. The countdown clock continued to wind down to the scheduled 9:16 landing. But the crowd was already gone.

There was a time, before the space shuttle Challenger blew up 17 years ago, when NASA claimed the likelihood of a catastrophic accident was 1 in 100,000. NASA later increased the risk to 1 in 148. The astronauts know the danger. They try not to think about it, "but you know it's very risky," says Mike Mullane, an astronaut who retired in 1990. Mullane admitted that on launch, "I wasn't scared, I was terrified."

The specialists inside Mission Control were well aware that the complex machines they put into space and then hope to bring home again are potential deathtraps. The rest of us forget, until a tragedy occurs, and the nation and the world are left mourning the loss of the astonishing array of hope and talent that routinely fly aboard the shuttles--113 trips, so far. When the shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas last Saturday morning, it took with it an Air Force colonel and test pilot (whose last job had been chief of safety for the astronaut office); a former Eagle Scout fighter jock (second in his class at Annapolis); a veteran African-American astronaut making his second trip into space; an Indian-born woman with a Ph.D. who enjoyed flying aerobatics; a medical doctor who had performed in the circus as an acrobat; another medical doctor who was a mother, and an Israeli Air Force hero who had bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.

The seven crew members of the Columbia were finishing a 16-day mission that had gone off without a hitch. In between conducting dozens of scientific experiments, there had been plenty of time for stargazing. Astronaut Kalpana Chawla had told reporters how much, on a prior shuttle mission, she had enjoyed "watching the continents go by, the thunderstorms shimmering in the clouds, the city lights at night." She flew over her native India and saw the Himalayas for the last time less than an hour before she died.

By about 7 a.m. Eastern time, the astronauts had just about finished up the chore of checking the hundreds of switches in the crew module, verifying that they were in the right position for re-entry. In Florida, early-morning fog still shrouded the runway at Cape Canaveral, but NASA officials were confident the haze would burn off. The weather had been perfect for the launch; the forecast was for blue skies at the landing.

Launches are the most frightening part of spaceflight. "On re-entry you have some elevated apprehension, but nowhere near what you feel on launch," says astronaut Mullane. "Because you don't have any engines running, it's a much more passive event; you don't have the same threat of death hanging over you that you do on launch." Even so, re-entry is perilous. Space fans and moviegoers will recall the tension when the heat shield came loose on John Glenn's space capsule as it returned to Earth in 1962, or the drama captured by "Apollo 13" as the astronauts gritted their teeth while their fragile capsule rocketed through the atmospheric inferno. Engineers talk about "the exchange of energy." The space shuttle stores up tremendous kinetic energy when it blasts off and circles the globe. It must dissipate that energy to slow down enough to return to Earth.

In essence, speed is exchanged for heat. The orbiter begins to make sweeping S-turns as it enters the atmosphere. At the moment of maximum friction, the temperature around the orbiter is 3,000 degrees. To reflect the heat and protect its metal frame, the shuttle has about 20,000 hand-laid tiles on its nose and underside. These ceramic tiles are light--like a piece of Styrofoam--but they are rock-hard. As the shuttle enters the atmosphere, it must be at just the right attitude, or angle of attack. The nose is tilted up sharply. If the orbiter pitches forward or jerks sideways, the metal will start melting and the airframe will come apart.

The Columbia's two-minute, 38-second "de-orbit burn"--firing its rockets to brake its initial descent--went off right on schedule at 8:15 a.m., ET. At the time, the shuttle was flying upside down and backward, its tail pointed in the direction of travel, some 175 miles above the Indian Ocean, just west of Australia. Its onboard computers began to swing the orbiter around into its nose-up position. At 8:44 a.m., the orbiter began what is known as "entry interface." The protective tiles on the belly glowed red-hot as the plane began to bounce off the upper fringes of the atmosphere.

At 8:46 a.m., ET, the Columbia made landfall in California. This was just about the time when Tony Beasley and his wife began noticing odd things happening to the shuttle as it raced across the heavens. Those flashes may have just been pulses of light from the "plasma," the glowing cocoon of superheated air that envelops the orbiter as it re-enters the atmosphere. Or the Beasleys may have been early witnesses to something going terribly wrong.

Inside the orbiter, and down at Mission Control, everything still seemed A-OK. The first sign that anything might be amiss did not come until 8:53. A sensor measuring temperatures on the left wing suddenly blinked out. By itself, this was not alarming. Sensors often cut out because of a minor malfunction. Mission Control did not even bother to inform the crew. Then at 8:56, the heat sensors in the left main tire well spiked up. A couple of minutes later, more sensors went out, this time in the body of the craft itself, along its left side. At 8:59, the temperature and tire-pressure gauges on the left side failed to register. By this time, Houston and the crew of Columbia were beginning to discuss the glitch. At 9 a.m., the Houston controller said, "Columbia, Houston, we see your tire-pressure messages and we did not copy your last."

Aboard the Columbia, the mission commander, Col. Rick Husband, said calmly, "Roger, buh... "

Silence for several seconds.

Then static and some clicking.

By now Mission Control was getting anxious. In itself, the loss of communication was not entirely ominous. Spacecraft lose contact with ground control from time to time. But too many sensors--unconnected to any single source--were on the fritz. Chief flight director Milt Heflin later gloomily but laconically described the atmosphere in Mission Control: "The team was beginning to know we had a bad day."

Some 200,000 feet above Texas, the astronauts were already dead, if they were lucky. When the Challenger blew up in 1986, the command module survived the initial blast. The astronauts inside survived a gruesome two-minute, 45-second ride to a watery grave in the Atlantic. Traveling at 18 times the speed of sound, the command module of the Columbia may have blown apart, instantly killing the crew. But judging from the TV camera shots of the spacecraft as it came apart in the Texas sky, a large chunk--possibly the command module--stayed intact for many seconds.

The debris of the Columbia landed in at least three states--Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana--and possibly a couple more. On one Texas field, wisps of gray smoke rose from a huge patch of blackened grass. Nacogdoches County reported some 1,000 pieces of debris--twisted metal, evil-looking shards still steaming with highly toxic propellants. There were tales of near misses--one piece supposedly plunged into an empty dentist's chair--but no deaths or injuries were reported in the first few hours after the disaster.

Early that morning, White House chief of staff Andy Card was flipping through TV channels in his cabin at Camp David. He heard the news and immediately called the White House Situation Room. Then he went to President Bush, who was about to begin his morning workout, to tell him that NASA had lost contact with the Columbia. In the post-9-11 age, the first thought on many minds was terrorism. Security had been especially tight for the Columbia because of the presence of the Israeli Air Force pilot who had bombed Iraq. But Homeland Security officials quickly discounted the possibility that terrorists had destroyed a spacecraft 40 miles above the Earth.

Bush and the presidential entourage hurried back to Washington. Standing in the Oval Office, Bush called the stunned families of the astronauts, who had gathered around a speakerphone at the Kennedy Space Center. "I wish I was there to hug and to cry and to comfort you," he told them, according to a White House aide. By 2 p.m., Bush was on national TV somberly quoting Isaiah: "Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing." Bush went on: "The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today."

A pair of grim NASA officials groped for answers to reporters' questions an hour later. Ron Dittemore, NASA's shuttle program manager, and chief flight director Heflin acknowledged that upon Columbia's launch, some insulation had torn free from the booster rocket and hit the left wing of the shuttle. The insulation was soft, and it didn't appear to do any harm. Cameras on the ground caught a puff of debris from the foam striking the leading edge of the wing. NASA experts, they said, considered the risk that the tiles on Columbia had been damaged, but rejected the possibility. It is possible, in hindsight, that the tiles were somehow weakened, but that the weaknesses were not exposed until the stress of re-entry. A small gap in the tiles could become larger. The tiles would peel away like a zipper opening.

But even if the tiles had been damaged on launch, the NASA officials pointed out, there is little that the space agency could have done to fix the problem. Spacewalking astronauts cannot go around the wing and patch missing tiles on the underside of the craft. NASA did not make a serious effort to look at Columbia's underbelly with a telescope or high-powered camera or a spy satellite. Had real damage been spotted, was there an escape plan? Could the Columbia have hooked up with the space station and the crew, in effect, abandon ship, to await rescue by another shuttle? Not possible, NASA officials told NEWSWEEK. The Columbia was not carrying the proper gear to dock with the space station.

The second-guessing will start soon enough. By Saturday night the whistle-blowers were already beginning to toot on the Internet and on the talking-head shows, claiming they had been predicting disaster for years. One San Diego professor held a press conference to assert that he had long raised alarms about the fragility of the tiles. Having been through the Challenger tragedy, NASA knows that the inquiries will be long and the scrutiny harsh. Indeed, NASA has already called for an independent commission.

It is entirely possible that neither faulty heat tiles nor the insulation breaking over the wing on launch had anything to do with the tragedy. NASA officials are hoping that the disaster was what they call a "one-off"--a one-time accident and not the result of some deeper structural flaw. The Challenger was brought down by faulty O-rings, a kind of giant plastic washer placed between the joints of the booster rocket. It took NASA two years to find and correct this structural flaw. No shuttle flew for 32 months.

The shuttle program cannot afford to wait that long. Three of the loneliest members of the human race have to be the crew of the International Space Station. Navy Capt. Kenneth D. Bowersox, mission commander; Los Alamos scientist Donald Pettit, and flight engineer Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin--Expedition Crew Six--were expecting to be whisked back to Earth by the space shuttle Atlantis in March. With all shuttles grounded, they may be stranded. NASA says the space-station astronauts have enough food and provisions to hold out until June. But then they may have to climb into the Russian Soyuz "lifeboat" to make their escape, or possibly wait for the Russians to launch a rescue mission. Space is a perilous place. The fall of Columbia reminds us of those dangers--and of the bravery of the men and women who defy them.

The Initial Problem?
Foam insulating Columbia's external fuel tank broke loose during the Jan. 16 launch. Images show it striking the left wing, where it may have dislodged protective tiles, making the shuttle vulnerable to excessive heat.

THE LAUNCH: The images show a slight burst as insulation hits the left wing. Prior to re-entry, NASA downplayed the damage. But problems apparently started in the left wing during Columbia's disintegration.

The Crew
A. Rick Husband, commander, 45, married with two children
B.William McCool, pilot, 41, married
C.Laurel Clark, mission specialist, 41, married, one child
D.Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist, 41, married
E.Michael Anderson, payload commander, 43, married
F.David Brown, mission specialist, 46, single
G.Ilan Ramon, payload specialist, 48, married, four children

Shuttle Stress Points
Temperatures can reach 3,000 degrees when the shuttle hits the atmosphere. The nose and the leading edges of the wings get the worst of it. Heat-resistant materials protect these vulnerable surfaces.

Final Flight
The rigors of re-entry may have sealed the shuttle's fate.

1 8:15 a.m.: Flying upside down and backward, Columbia fires its engines over the Indian Ocean, slowing down enough to slip out of orbit.
28:30 a.m.: Columbia raises its nose, allowing the heat-resistant belly to take the brunt of atmospheric friction.
38:45 a.m.: The shuttle reaches Earth's atmosphere. Soon after, heat sensors go out on the left wing, possible indicating a problem.
49 a.m.: Houston radios the crew. The shuttle sends a garbled response, then transmissions go silent. At 200,000 feet above earth, Columbia disintegrates.
59:15 a.m.: Witnesses spot flaming debris streaking through the skies over eastern Texas.

INSULATION: The shuttle is coated with more than 20,000 tiles designed to protect the aluminum shell from the heat of re-entry. Loss of the tiles may expose the craft to damaging temperatures.


In a Feb. 10 graphic we printed a photo that identified the manufacturer of the shuttle Columbia's nose and wing tiles as BFGoodrich. That company, now known as the Goodrich Corp., did not make the Columbia's nose and wing tiles. NEWSWEEK regrets the errors.