Tue, 04 Feb 2003

Another space tragedy

As investigators continue to labor to determine what exactly caused the Columbia space shuttle to disintegrate and explode on the weekend, shock is beginning to make way for some serious questioning among scientists and laymen alike. Saturday's disaster, after all, was the biggest space shuttle catastrophe the American space program had experienced since the Challenger exploded on Jan. 28, 1986 -- almost 17 years ago to the day last Saturday.

Officials in Washington have quickly ruled out any possibility of saboteurs or terrorists having a hand in Saturday's calamity, and are instead looking at the possibility of technical faults. This, of course, is logical reasoning, given the fact that the American space program is one of the best guarded projects in the world and would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for outsiders to penetrate.

The main suspect, for as far as American space scientists and engineers are able to determine so far, seems to be a thermal, or heat, problem, that arose when a piece of the space shuttle's insulation foam peeled off shortly after lift-off and struck the vehicle's left wing, damaging some of the tiles that would have prevented the shuttle from burning during re-entry into the earth's atmosphere. The seven astronauts on board may have been doomed from the start.

Officials stress, however, that it is too early to say with any degree of certainty what precisely happened, or why. In the meantime, an intensive search is being made, both for the space craft's debris and for the remains of the seven crew -- including one 41-year-old Indian-born woman astronaut, Kalpana Chawla, and an air force colonel from Israel, Ilan Ramon.

In any case, and whatever the cause of the disaster may have been, one certain consequence of Saturday's space shuttle calamity is that all other planned space shuttles will be grounded until the fault in the Columbia disaster is identified and corrected. Elsewhere in the world, too, space programs are affected by the disaster. Russia, while duly sending its official condolences to Washington, went on on Sunday to send a cargo shuttle carrying food and fuel to the International Space Station already in orbit. The accident, however, is almost certain to affect Japan's new man-in-space program.

President George W. Bush Jr. and First Lady Laura Bush are expected to attend a memorial service that will be held by the American National Air and Space Administration (NASA) in Houston, Texas, today, and share in the grief that is felt by millions of Americans and others elsewhere in the world.

We, too, would like on this occasion to extend our sincere condolences to all the bereaved. Saturday's tragedy once again brings home to the general public the risks and the dangers that are involved in pioneering work such as space research.

Let us remember that those seven astronauts aboard the Columbia shuttle did not give their lives in vain. By serving science in the true spirit of international cooperation they also served not only the United States, but all mankind. We would also like to join in the hope, expressed by President Bush, that Saturday's tragedy will not stop the American space program from continuing.