Columbia, Houston, UHF Comm Check…..

Just like “Go at throttle up”, those words will always send a shiver through me.  That was the CAPCOM at Mission Control, asking Columbia to respond, as they had lost signal and needed to verify UHF comms were still open.  It’s normal for the signal to come and go while they’re blazing through reentry, but, this signal never came back.

13 years ago today, the Columbia was lost on reentry, destroyed by aerodynamic forces as a hole in one wing leading edge allowed hot gasses in to weaken the structures inside.  If there is a blessing from it, it is that the crew were certainly dead in seconds, if not milliseconds, because of the extreme forces to which they were subjected.  Unlike the Challenger crew, they may not even have realized anything was seriously wrong before it was all over.

As after Challenger, the Shuttle program went onto a hiatus while procedures were put into place to prevent the accident from recurring.  They were of mixed success, but NASA never lost another one.  But it had a profound affect on Space Station operations.  Coming soon after a general pare-down of ISS to support President Bush’s new “Vision for Space Exploration”, which would see humans back on the Moon by 2020, it gave incentive to pare down even more.  Shuttle was banned from performing any further ISS crew transfer missions; that became the sole province of the Soyuz.  This was a blow to both American and Russians programs, for the Russians had intended to rely mostly on Shuttle for their own crew transfers as well, allowing them to fill up Soyuz taxi flights (which only needed two crew) with paying customers in the third seat.  On the plus side for them, NASA paid better than the tourists had, but on the downside, the available options for space tourists plummeted that day.

Shuttle went on to fly until 2011.  And there were no more accidents.  For that, everyone breathed a sigh of relief.  Now the attention moves on to the commercial spaceflight providers.  Will they uphold the same standards of safety reliability?  When (not if) will commerical spaceflight have their first deaths?  I hope not for a good long while.  We should all have learned valuable lessons from Challenger and Columbia, lessons not in who to blame, but lessons in hubris, and in deferring to authority when you know there is something amiss.

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