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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Columbia feared lost

I have little information at present. The news over here has not cut in over the sports and soaps, but I have received a call and found a short story at Fox.

Contact with the shuttle Columbia was lost during re-entry. Whatever you worship, pray. I would have little hope for good news and will soon be calling friends as there is no one around me here how would fully understand.

Frontiers are not safe places and are not for the cowardly or the weak of heart.

MORE: Channel 4 cut in for 60 seconds and showed the breakup film clip. That’s all. The media here isn’t worth the bandwidth it takes up. Here is my bet based on very little information, including this report:

“On launch day, a piece of insulating foam on the external fuel tank came off during liftoff and was believed to have struck the left wing of the shuttle.”

I suggest there was damage to the TPS on one wing, causing a burn through and structural damage leading to failure of the wing structure when aerodynamic forces built. The shuttle has very high wing loading, so any loss of margin would be disastrous. If one wing fails, the shuttle will immediately roll violently into the direction of the failed wing followed by god only knows what sort of tumble. It would break up into major components almost immediately. That is what we saw on the clip.

There would be very little fuel on board. Only some remnants of RCS fuel, a lot of hypergolics for the APU and perhaps a small left over from the reentry burn. Almost all off this is at the extreme rear in the two lumpy bits either side of the vertical stabilizer.

A second scenario is catastrophic failure of the APU’s taking out all the hydraulics just when they are needed the most. With or without structural damage directly caused by such a failure, the shuttle will go into uncontrolled tumble and breakup.

A third scenario is fatigue failure. I don’t feel this is likely, but if so we can kiss our manned space access goodbye.

I give almost zero credence to ideas of terrorism being involved. Ten years ago predictions were for the loss of one more shuttle during the space station construction, just by pure probability (“If it’s not one damn thing, it’s another”). We all prayed we’d continue winning on the dice toss but ultimately knew we’d roll snake eyes.

The only hope is for the crew compartment to remain intact and presurized. If it did, if it was through the re-entry interface and if it was not in a high speed (high G) tumble, a bail out by one or two of the crew at lower altitude is concievable… but unlikely.

I have very, very little hope of survivors. But miracles do happen so keep praying. They need all the help they can get.

MORE: I’ve found that Rand Simberg is on the road and racing home to blog on this. He’ll be worth listening to as he worked on the Shuttles at Palmdale when they were built.

MORE: Chatted with Rand. He’s in SF, not going home until tonight (his time). We agree on the most likely scenario and ordering of failure modes. He blogged it before we talked. Great minds think alike.

17 comments to Columbia feared lost

  • Burning streaks were seen on video over Texas. NASA sent out search and rescue and the public has been told to stay away from possible debris.

    They’re gone.

  • Alan

    Nasa Homepage reporting that debris has been sighted in North Central Texas. Updates will be posted at Nasa Home Page.

  • Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth

    And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

    Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

    Of sun-split clouds and done a hundred things

    You have not dreamed of–wheeled and soared and swung

    High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,

    I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

    My eager craft through footless halls of air.

    Up, up, up the long, delirious burning blue

    I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace

    Where never Lark, or even Eagle flew –

    And while with silent lifting mind, I’ve trod

    The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

    Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

  • Alan

    Finally, ITN has broadcast details of the tragedy in a news bulletin. Suddenly everything else on television seems so trivial and pointless.

    Praying for one hell of a miracle…

  • I got an e-mail telling me about it, and I immediately turned on the television, and found no report of it on any of the five normal channels. (My goodness they are pathetic). I went downstairs and the 24 hour news channels are at least giving it blanket coverage.

    This is dreadful, dreadful, dreadful.

    Dale, there may be nobody around you who would fully understand, but this comments section is full of people who do.

  • Dale Amon

    I’ll try to keep my analysis coming as events unfold. It’s something to do rather than just stay in bits. And besides which, if you want knowledgeable information, people like myself and Rand are *far* more knowledgeable than all but the best of the aviation industry press and certainly in the stratosphere compared with network anchors and reporters.

    Glenn is fairly reliable in this area as well, but not specifically an engineer. Even so, he’ll be more accurate than the network guys who barely know their APU’s from their GPC’s.

    So Stay Tuned to

  • Thanks Dale.

    Dave Winer seems to have a good set of links , too. He’s an engineer, although not the right kind. On BBC News 24, we are lengthy comments of extraordinary banality, so I am sticking to the web.

  • Mark Holland

    I hadn’t cried in years but I have been in tears reading about Peter Ginz’s picture.


  • Doug Jones

    I have an eywitness account:

    I watched the reentry from Mojave, CA at about 0553 this morning. Although there was some light haze (clearly visible when viewing Venus and Jupiter with 10×50 binoculars while waiting for the event), I was able to see an orange dot leaving a glowing trail behind it. At about the time of closest approach (about 220 miles, I believe) the brightness flared for an instant and a small speck came away from the main body, drifting backwards relative to it. Over about ten seconds, it dimmed and went out, then perhaps thirty seconds later the shuttle flared again but no debris was visible.

    I don’t feel like editorializing, I just wanted to add some information.

  • kps

    It is today that we remember and honor
    the crews of Apollo 1 and Challenger.
    They made the ultimate sacrifice,
    giving their lives and service
    to their country and for all mankind.
    Their dedication and devotion
    to the exploration of space
    was an inspiration to each of us,
    and still motivates people around the world
    to achieve great things in service to others.
    As we orbit the Earth,
    we will join the entire NASA family
    for a moment of silence in their memory.
    Our thoughts and prayers go to their families as well.

    Commander Rick Douglas Husband,
    28 January 2003

  • Alastair

    Radio 4 cut in at 3:30 with a short piece on the news.

    I was not happy with some of the coverage on the news at 5pm. A relative of the Israeli astronaut (sorry, I don’t recall the relationship) was interviewed and I was quite shocked at the persistence of the questioning. “Have you spoken to his wife?”, “What did she say?” (she was “cying”). “And what did you say to her?”. I wanted to scream.


  • kps: That just about brings me to tears.

  • Trent Telenko

    I have been blogging the Columbia disaster over on the Winds of Change.


  • Dale Amon

    I know Doug Jones. Rather poignant that because he was most likely watching from outside the XCor hanger at Mojave where they have their rocket plane. He’s one of the engineers there, and formerly was with Rotary Rocket… and for all of the 1980’s was part of our crowd on sci.space.

  • Doug Jones

    Yeah, I did park at our EZ-Rocket hangar, the airport is a good dark place for skywatching. Although I’m something of an oldtimer on sci.space.*, I didn’t get on the net until 1994- Henry Spencer, on the other hand, helped *create* usenet, and even was acknowledged by Google for providing some of the oldest usenet records.

  • Dale Amon

    Yeah, Henry and I go way back… I’ve known him since about 1983 or 1984, can’t quite remember when. And since you mention it, I think I’ll ring him and see if he wants to jump in and comment on anything here.