The space shuttle Columbia disintegrated Saturday morning nearly 40 miles above Texas, only 15 minutes before its scheduled landing at the Kennedy Space Center. NASA has grounded the three remaining shuttles until a cause of the disaster has been found.

“The Columbia’s lost. There are no survivors,” President Bush said at a mid-day address to the American people. On-board the orbiter was a crew of seven — commander Rick Husband, pilot William McCool, payload commander Michael Anderson, mission specialists David Brown, Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark as well as Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut. “These astronauts knew the dangers and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life,” Bush said.

Although the cause of the tragedy has not yet been determined, officials have all but dismissed the possibility of a malevolent attack because of how high and fast the shuttle was traveling at the time of the accident.

“At this time we have no indication that the mishap was caused by anything or anyone on the ground,” NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said in a press conference.

Even as they mourn their deceased colleagues, NASA officials have begun an investigation to determine the cause of the tragedy and its effect on the future of the shuttle program. To assist in this investigation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is overseeing the recovery of the large amount of debris scattered across the Southwestern United States.

The investigation is currently focusing on the shuttle launch of Jan. 17 and the possibility that a piece of insulation that broke off during liftoff could have damaged the heat shielding of the shuttle, dooming the mission from the beginning.

UR’s reaction
Just as the world mourned the loss of the Columbia and her crew, UR faculty and students expressed their concerns about the incident and their hopes for the future of the space program.

UR community members showed sorrow in the face of the tragedy and also concern for its implications on future space endeavors — especially the shuttle program and other manned spaceflight initiatives.

“It makes your stomach knot knowing that those seven men and women were among the brightest and friendliest people our nations have to offer. It doesn’t soften the blow knowing they knew the risks,” freshman Alexandra Cornwall said.

“I think it’s really unfortunate for the space program. The fleet is grounded so further construction of the International Space Station has been stopped and progress in the field has been halted,” junior Josh Veazey added.

Both Cornwall and Veazey believe that manned exploration should proceed regardless of the tragedy. “Gigantic leaps in science occur every time a crew returns from space and space exploration by machine has its limit,” Cornwall said.

“There will be accidents in any endeavor, but continued developments in manned spaceflight could be vital to the survival of humanity,” Veazey said.

Physics and astronomy department faculty members were less supportive of NASA’s shuttle program than of unmanned projects. “I don’t think it is scientific reasons that drive the shuttle and ISS program,” Professor emeritus of observational and experimental astronomy Judith Pipher said.

Professor of astronomy William Forest agreed that manned spaceflight is often impractical for scientific endeavors. “It costs about 10 times more if people are involved [in the mission],” Forest said.

Forest and Pipher are two faculty members working with NASA to develop components for the Space Infrared Telescope Facility, part of the same program as the Hubble Space Telescope and two other orbiting observatories. The telescope is scheduled to launch in April on a Delta rocket, an unmanned launch vehicle.

“We don’t anticipate [SIRTF] being affected by the tragedy,” Pipher said.With the constant media coverage of the Columbia’s destruction and ensuing events, publicity for the space program has focused almost exclusively on this and other mishaps at NASA. The last loss of life during a manned mission was 17 years ago when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff. 19 years before that — a launch pad fire killed three Apollo astronauts. However, throughout its history, the program has had many successes.

“There’s a long period of success in between [these accidents] and when things have been successful they have a tendency to become routine,” Pipher said.

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