Perfect Voyage Ends in Tragedy

At 7:53am CST, the Space Shuttle Columbia–traveling at mach 18, several times the speed of sound and just minutes before an expected perfect landing in Florida–suddenly lost contact with Houston Mission Control and it quickly became a moment to mourn. By 8:00am, about 203,000 feet above Texas, people over the peaceful cow roaming country of North East Texas suddenly heard what was described as a loud fast train and furious rumbling and then sounds of explosions. Several people saw the trail of fire from the ship thrusting toward the ground.

Just moments earlier, as the shuttle passed Southern California on its way to Florida, photographers saw what may have been the beginning of the Columbia breaking up. The photographers, expecting to take routine shots, were startled to see red flares streaking across the nose and wing of the shuttle. People in Texas minutes later with home video cameras, captured the tragic and devastating end of the shuttle breaking up in mid-flight, killing the entire courageous crew of 7: six Americans and one Israeli.

In this image from television, contrails from what appears to be the space shuttle Columbia can be seen streaking across the sky over Texas on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2003.

John Pronk,WFAA-TV, Dallas / AP Photo

Right before the sensors quit and the last words from the Astronauts, “roger that”, were heard, officials say the Columbia was “in a good communications area” and that communications were clear. “Then, we lost communications and tried to reach Columbia via UHF channels, but still no response.”

President Bush addressed the nation shortly after the tragedy: “In the skies today we saw destruction and tragedy. Yet farther than we can see there is comfort and hope. In the words of the prophet 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.’

“The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home.” (President’s Full Remarks)

One of the 7 tragedies is the loss of Israel’s first astronaut who had become a namesake in Israel. Ilan Ramon was a hero to countless Israelis. The Israeli fighter pilot had flown in critical missions, logging over 4,000 hours in flight.

Ilan flew an F-16 into Iraq on an important secret mission in Operation Peace for Galilee to destroy the nearly operational Iraqi nuclear reactor near Baghdad, in 1981.

According to NASA, Ramon, who also has degrees in science, electronics and computer engineering, had duties on Columbia that included working with a multispectral camera for recording desert aerosol–an experiment designed to study how desert dust and other contaminants in the Earth’s atmosphere affect rainfall and other weather on Earth.

Ilan Ramon has been so loved by his country, that nearly 300 Israelis and dignitaries came to the U.S. for Columbia’s launch. Back home in Israel, many classrooms had assignments that included tracking his progress with the shuttle mission. A high school in Israel even had him take an experiment up with him on the growth of crystals. A few days before the tragedy, he e-mailed the high school with the test results that may now be used to advance medicine.

“Moon Landscape”, created by Petr Ginz.
Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force, contacted Yad Vashem’s Art Museum requesting a Holocaust related item to take with him on his launch into space on the shuttle Columbia, due to the significance of the Holocaust to him as a Jew and as an Israeli.

It was also important for Ilan to bring with him items from his Jewish heritage. A special hand crafted mezuzah was taken up with him. And, although he is a secular Jew, he consulted with rabbis about bringing kosher food. NASA found the appropriate supplier for the first kosher food prepared for space travel. One of the most significant items that Ilan brought on his space journey was a copy of a sketch drawn during the time of the Holocaust by Petr Ginz, a 14-year-old Jewish boy. The young artist and would be future astronaut later died at Auschwitz, but his drawing of what the Earth would look like from the moon survived. Holocaust survivor Yehoyahin Yosef, a professor of planetary physics at Tel Aviv University, gave Ramon a pocket sized Torah scroll that he used to study for his bar mitzvah when he was in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Ilan Ramon spent four years preparing for this space mission and in a NASA preflight message he said, “We are a global community, and when you get to space science, that is the best tool and way of living like a global community.” “Space is inspiring, and whenever you talk about space, everyone, not only kids, even us, we are thrilled.”

During an in-flight interview with the astronauts, Columbia Mission Specialist David Brown, with Commander Rick Husband nodding in agreement, said “we know Ilan as a person, and as a crew mate he is tops.” “We enjoy his sense of humor, he’s technically tops…he was and is the tops.”

In the days before Columbia lifted off, the astronauts with NASA conducted interviews to discuss their work in space and to also express how they felt about embarking on the upcoming scientific voyage:

Astronauts aboard Columbia’s Spacehab: Back Row: (L-R) astronaut David Brown, Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, astronaut Kalpana Chawla, pilot William McCool, and astronaut Laurel Clark. Front Row: (L-R) commander Rick Husband and astronaut Michael Anderson, wave to a television camera in this view Jan. 20, 2003. An apple is floating in the foreground.


McCool joyfully talked about his anticipation into space. “I feel blessed to have an extended duration space flight, to have more opportunity to absorb the whole experience,” he said. However, he said “it’s going to be a jam packed 16 days on Orbit.”

Astronaut Clark, a pediatrician and beloved wife and mother said, “This mission is extremely exciting; it’s a great feeling to be part of a team of researchers and investigators that have been working for years to bring all this into fruition. “

Astronaut Michael Anderson worked on STS-89 during the eighth Shuttle-Mir docking mission during which the crew transferred more than 9,000 pounds of scientific equipment, logistical hardware and water from Space Shuttle Endeavour to Mir.

Mike Anderson spoke of team spirit saying, “I really like to think of my role as one of helping the rest of the crew do their jobs, trying to make their jobs easier, and if I do my job well that should make their jobs that much more easier, we should have a better time on orbit and have a much more successful mission.”

Repairs Made on Columbia in Space

This was mission specialist Kalpana Chawla’s second trip into space. The "Voice of America" reported on her last trip to space in 1997, where she was blamed for allowing a small satellite to spin out of control. India’s national newspaper "The Hindi" reported on some of the work she performed while on the Columbia mission. Chawla apparently detected a leak in the Combustion Module 2, which "provides control and communication facilities for all fire-related experiments" and repaired it on January 29th. Chawla was the first Indian-born woman in space to the delight of her former homeland.

For More on the Seven, Click HERE

Clearing Up the Foam Mystery

For 21 years the Columbia shuttle’s missions have gone well. When the shuttle launched on January 16th it was initially scheduled to leave a day earlier, but due to safety concerns the launch was held back.

After satisfying safety concerns, Columbia was launched. Everything seemed fine, although about 80 seconds after lift off a 2 foot piece of foam, weighing about 2 pounds, fell off.

Shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore summed up the shock of the shuttle breakup saying, “Things were going so well, but they turned out so badly.” Dittemore addressed questions concerning analysis of the piece of foam that apparently hit Columbia’s left wing. There had been reports that the incident had not been analyzed.

Dittemore cleared up the misinformation, divulging that “right after launch…there was a piece of foam that is used as insulation on the external tank in the area of what we call the bi-pod…” “There is a piece of foam that was shed, and in our review the following day of the launch films, we saw this piece of debris drop off and it looked to us that it impacted the orbiter on the left wing… We spent a goodly amount of time reviewing that film and then analyzing what that potential impact of debris on the wing might do and would there be any consequences. It was judged that event did not represent a safety concern… The technical community got together and across the country and judged that to be acceptable…”

"Regression analysis" is what is needed now said Dittemore. He went on to explain the necessity to "look at everything" before making conclusions: “We’ve got to…piece together the events," as to, "whether or not this was a tile problem, or whether it was a structural issue, or some other event.”

Dittemore said Federal agencies will be using the debris found to help them in the analysis and investigation.

Wreckage of the Columbia has been strewn across the southern United States with pieces ending up in fields and parking lots. Sadly, human remains have reportedly been found on the border of Texas and Louisiana.

The Columbia disaster has been difficult for people across the country and across the world. Russian President Vladimir Putin, along with other world leaders, sent President Bush their sympathies. Putin sent a telegram that went on Russia’s First Channel television. Putin said Russia "sympathizes deeply with you over the tragedy which has struck your country." It was also reported in Russia that Putin sent condolences to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

California Congressman Brad Sherman (far left) with Ilan Ramon (3rd from left) and his wife Rona Ramon (2nd from left).

The Congressman’s remarks on the loss of his friend, astronaut Ramon.

Local leaders in the United States spoke of their experiences with the shuttle crew. Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay reminisced on television, telling of how he prayed with astronaut Rick Husband and his wife before the mission was to take place. California Congressman Brad Sherman released a statement that spoke of the time he and Ramon and his family spent together in California and how he now misses his dear friend.

"I came to know Ilan Ramon when he and his wife Rona came to visit my district as my guests in August 2000. Ilan was an inspiration to all of us who believe that the future of humankind includes space, and to all of us who support a close U.S.-Israel relationship."

As all of Israel grieves for the loss of its hero, the government offered its condolences for the U.S. deaths in the tragedy: "The Israeli government and people share the sorrow of the Ramon family, and of the families of the other astronauts, who perished today (Saturday), February 1, 2003, in the space shuttle Columbia disaster. The Israeli government sends condolences on behalf of the entire Jewish people to Rona Ramon and the Ramon family, the families of the American astronauts, US President George W. Bush, and the entire American people.” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said, "Let us pray together and support each other."

President Bush Speaks at Memorial to Honor Columbia Space Shuttle Crew
(February 4, 2003)