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Welcome to the Real Space Age


He was adamant. “I think it’s really exciting,” he said, banging the table. “And it’s fun as a human who’s only alive for a hundred years, in order of magnitude, to be part of something that will last a million years.”

At 10:39 a.m. on January 16, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia departed from Kennedy Space Center for its 28th mission, the 113th of the shuttle program. There had been, in retrospect, signs, or at least bits of irony. Such as: During a gathering the night before liftoff, a friend’s teenage daughter slipped a piece of paper to Mission Specialist Laurel Clark, which she stuffed in her purse and opened later—a drawing of an angel fallen to Earth. Or, as Rick Husband was talking to his wife in a video feed not long before Columbia was to return home, she watched as the screen froze just as they were about to say good-bye, so that as she sat there, the image of him staring at the camera, in the orbiter spinning high around the world, she repeated that she loved him.

Columbia had been the first of the fleet of shuttles to reach the Earth’s orbit, in 1981, following in the wake of Apollo and the moon race and marking the next generation of human spaceflight. The primary goal of the shuttle program was simple: to create a reusable space vehicle that could transport materials to and from the International Space Station. But the execution ended up far more complex; designed for 100 missions each, over the course of 30 years the five orbiters had flown only 135 missions, with one of them, Challenger’s tenth, in 1986, ending in tragedy 73 seconds after liftoff.

Inside Columbia’s crew compartment, the seven astronauts adjusted to all kinds of space idiosyncrasies and marvels. Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla related a moment when she watched as the orbiter arced beyond another sunset: “You can still see the Earth’s surface and the dark sky overhead, and I could then see my reflection in the window, and in the retina of my eye, the whole Earth and the sky.” They worked in two shifts, red and blue, their days—“days” was something of a misnomer, since they experienced sixteen sunrises and sunsets in each 24-hour period—scheduled almost down to the minute. They grew flowers, incubated bacteria, tended to rats. They were in constant communication with Mission Control in Houston, which was aware that an estimated 1.67-pound piece of foam had dislodged from the external fuel tank 81.7 seconds into liftoff. The crew was alerted only in passing, in an e-mail that called the occurrence “not even worth mentioning.” The truth is there was nothing that could be done about it anyway. As a senior NASA official had told a colleague, “Don’t you think it would be better for them to have a happy, successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay in orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done, until the air ran out?”

On February 1, they were cleared for reentry. They fired the orbital engines to slow the shuttle from its speed of 17,500 miles per hour and slip out of orbit. They pitched the nose at 40 degrees. Somewhere high above the Pacific Ocean, a breach in a carbon tile on the left wing’s leading edge, just inches across, began to spread. Aboard Columbia, they continued their checklists. In Houston, telemetry began betraying problems; data ceased coming from the left wing. Thirty-eight miles above eastern Texas, traveling at eighteen times the speed of sound, the orbiter pitched, it began spinning, the left wing having folded over or broken away. The nose of the shuttle—the crew capsule—ripped away. It remained intact for roughly 35 seconds. The cabin lights went black; there was just plasma flashing out the windows. Sitting in their seats, the crew must have struggled, at least momentarily; their “subsequent exposure to hypersonic entry conditions,” a report would later find, “was not survivable by any means.” They plunged 60,000 feet, to an estimated altitude of 28 miles. Inside the capsule, the atmospheres mixed, until finally the module opened completely and the thin, freezing, blue-black sky burst in.

The ramifications of the destruction of Columbia were enormous, reaching much further than just the space-shuttle program, which was already living on borrowed time. It forced the turning of a page that many in and around NASA had fought desperately for decades and led, in many ways, directly to the increasing commercialization of space. President George W. Bush responded to the disaster by announcing one of the most sweeping space plans in American history, tying it more explicitly to national security (sending manned missions to the moon, and from there to Mars and beyond, before the Chinese do the same) and incentivizing private industry to expand their role. By 2009, Bush’s program was severely overbudget, underfunded, and behind schedule; Obama canceled most of it, adopting a “flexible path” that rejected a return to the moon and called for an incremental approach to reaching Mars, while maintaining and even accelerating the private industry’s involvement.

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