Yesterday morning, just after I woke up, I heard a loud rumbling outside. I assumed this was just a plane coming into DFW airport. The weather occasionally causes them to take a flight path right over our house that can be fairly loud. About half an hour later, I turned on the television and saw the first video of Columbia breaking up. I immediately went outside but it was far too late to see anything. The news commentators kept repeating over and over that the shuttle carried the first Israeli astronaut, implying some connection to Islamic terrorists but I seriously doubt there are many weapons that could track and hit a vehicle at 200,000 feet travelling at 12,000 mph.
I couldn’t help recalling memories of the Challenger from 1986. I had been driving home from classes at UTA when I heard the news on the radio that Challenger exploded shortly after take off. I kept thinking that it couldn’t possibly be correct – the reporters must be making some sort of mistake. By the time I got home and saw the video of the explosion I realized it was true. But yesterday, I knew instantly what had happened. Without the sound turned on, just looking at the words “breaking news”, “Columbia” and the contrail breaking up, I knew.
The worst part back in 1986 was that I was young enough that I still believed there was some chance I’d get off this rock in my lifetime. When the Challenger accident occurred, I lost that hope and knew it wouldn’t happen. We’d be stuck here on Earth for my lifetime. Within days of the accident luddites everywhere were trotting out the same tired, irrational arguments against space travel and science in general; “Space travel is too dangerous for humans”, “The space program is a waste of money”, “Man shouldn’t travel to other worlds until he can sort out the mess he’s made of this one”… I’ve seen several of those pop up again in less than 24 hours after Columbia’s demise.
Watching the contrail on CNN, I also thought back to July of 1999 when Susan and I stood in our front yard and watched Columbia cross the night sky over Texas, leaving a golden, sparkling trail of ionized plasma. I wonder how long it will be before we see a shuttle re-entry again?
The DPRG mailing list was buzzing with activity about the Columbia all day yesterday. DPRG members are located all over Texas (and beyond). They always managed to come up with stuff you don’t see on the news. Eric Yundt noticed that the shuttle debris trail was visible on a National Weather Service weather radar near the Texas Louisiana border and began archiving the images. Ed Okerson assembled the images into an animation that shows the debris trail expanding and descending across the state.
Animation by Ed Okerson using National Weather Service radar data
A later message from David Anderson, a geologist, indicated the SMU infrasound station in Lajitas had recorded the sound waves generated by the shuttle’s breakup. Rather than a normal N wave, the recorded pressures waves were like nothing the geologists had ever recorded before. David said it looked more like the sounds from a ripple fired mining explosion. David has put up a web page with images of the sound waves that were recorded. (he contacted NASA as well, since his data covers a time period after NASA lost telemetry data).
One last thought is what Richard P. Feynman said in his controversial appendix to the Challenger report, “The shuttle flies in a relatively unsafe condition, with a chance of failure on the order of a percent (1 in 100)”. If you ever get the chance, read “What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character” which has the full account of his investigation of the Challenger disaster.
Update: Read about my Columbia debris-hunting expedition