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February 7, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved. 
Should Manned Space Exploration Continue?

At 8:51 AM Eastern Standard Time (EST) on Saturday, February 1, 2003, the manned space program of the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) was cruising along smoothly. Space Shuttle Columbia (STS 107) was almost home after a sixteen-day mission. Its telemetry profile, being monitored at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, was normal. Eight minutes later, the future of manned space travel began to be in doubt.

It had been seventeen years, almost to the day, that the Space Shuttle Challenger burned shortly after its liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral Florida, immolating its crew of seven, including Christa McAuliffe, the first representative of NASA’s then new "Teacher in Space" program. After that accident, a three-year investigation and retooling followed, but not until a national debate had been held as to the efficacy of manned space flight. Many questioned if the reusable Space Shuttle was the most effective and economical method of achieving national objectives in space exploration.

But the Space Shuttle program did indeed resume. A replacement was built for the destroyed Challenger and a series of error-free liftoffs and reentries began on a regular schedule averaging four missions per year. Then, on January 16, 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia, the oldest vehicle in the fleet of four, blasted off from Cape Canaveral with its international crew of pilots and mission specialists carrying 80 separate scientific experiments ranging from prostate cancer research to the behavior of ants in a weightless environment — a project designed by high school students in Syracuse, New York.

Two crew members, Commander Rick D. Husband and Payload Specialist Michael P. Anderson, had flown shuttle missions once before. Pilot William C. McCool, and Mission Specialists Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown and Laurel B. Clark were making their first shuttle flight. Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon, a veteran and much decorated Israeli fighter pilot, the first representative of his country to team up with American astronauts, was also a space rookie.

It was at 8:59 EST on the last day of that flight that communications were lost with the Space Shuttle Columbia, then some 38 miles over Texas, as it assumed its reentry attitude into the earth’s atmosphere for a fifteen-minute descent to the same Florida facility where "Challenger" had met its fate in January of 1986. Waiting there were the family and friends of Columbia’s crew, poised for the vehicle’s anticipated safe landing and a joyful reunion with loved ones.

It was not to be. At that fateful moment, the beginning of a routine response was heard from the shuttle’s pilot, followed by silence. NASA ground controllers were stunned. For the preceding minutes they had been receiving data showing increasing temperatures in Columbia’s left wheel well area and other abnormal telemetry readings. It had seemed routine. The flight had been flawless, significant scientific experimentation had been achieved and, due to the national and ethnic diversity of the crew, NASA had enjoyed a public relations boon. The only glitch occurred 80-seconds after lift-off when a 3-pound piece of insulation flaked off an exterior tank, ricocheting off of the leading edge of shuttle’s left wing and its underneath array of heat resistant tiles. NASA experts had determined that it was not a serious problem.

Silence from Columbia, however, now shook their assumptions. Commander Husband’s last words, "Roger, Uh …" may be the last words ever again to be spoken from a NASA manned space vehicle. Shortly after the truncated communication was heard, the Columbia crew met a fate that faces each person venturing into the hostile atmosphere of outer space. Their 89-ton vehicle began to break apart, the separated pieces falling into differing trajectories to land along a five hundred mile trail stretching from East Texas into Louisiana. At the same time, the bodies of seven previously alive astronauts became "human remains," soon to be scattered on the ground among the mangled parts of their former home and laboratory. Almost immediately, local authorities and volunteers within the "debris field" fanned out to locate and protect pieces of the wreckage for further analysis by NASA investigators.

Within hours of the shuttle’s destruction, the space agency organized a review panel comprised of its own scientists and emergency response teams from the various NASA centers. The next day, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe announced that the seven independent members of the standing Space Shuttle Mishap Interagency Investigation Board would begin an independent review of the events that led up to Columbia’s disintegration. The board, headed by retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., consists of military and civilian members knowledgeable in the techniques of accident investigation. Results of both investigations will be made available to the appropriate officials and members of Congress. NASA assured the press that it would be informed of "everything as soon as we know it." The Bush Administration announced that it would await the results of the probes to develop any revision in NASA’s long-range future.

The future of manned space flight may depend on NASA’s ability to quickly discover and correct the cause of Columbia’s destruction so that shuttle missions already on the drawing board may continue. Already voices are heard from the scientific community opining that men and women transported into space is a marginally productive method to conduct extra-terrestrial research. Meanwhile, two American and one Russian occupant of the International Space Station orbiting the earth await information about their fate. Though they have a Russian Soyus spacecraft docked at the Space Station in case of a need for an emergency exit, it has been the Space Shuttles that have provided their transportation to and from their temporary laboratory miles beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Also, the unspoken rivalries existing among competing programs within NASA are likely to gain voices as Columbia’s woes are aired.

For example, observers point to NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, intended to investigate the possibilities of life on the Red Planet, as the most promising of the agency’s space endeavors. Since 2001, Puerto Rican, Orlando Figueroa, a graduate of the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez and a career NASA project engineer, has been in charge of that program. Recently, the space probe Odyssey sent back data indicating the presence of hydrogen on the Martian surface. Next, Figueroa’s team of scientists hopes to find water under the planet’s crust. The next step in the exploration of Mars will be in 2003, when NASA sends two robots to take samples of the Martian surface.

Even though Columbia’s destruction is a fast-breaking story with many details still to emerge, the Herald wishes to give readers a chance at this point to express an opinion about the advisability of manned space exploration.

This Week's Question:
Do you think that manned space exploration should continue?

US . Residents
. PR
Yes 88%
15% No 11%
8% Don't know 1%


.To submit your idea for a future PR Herald poll question or "Hot Button" issue, please click here.

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