Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Nine Years Ago Today the Columbia Shuttle Exploded

Last Launch of Columbia 2003

From The New York Times

When the first space shuttle, Columbia, blasted off in 1981, the craft were meant by NASA to be the workhorses of a new era in space exploration. When the program came to an end in 2011, the shuttles had come to be synonymous with tragedy — the accidents that destroyed the Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 — and a great leap forward in our ability to understand the universe.

Unlike the rockets that brought astronauts to the moon, the shuttles were orbiters designed for repeated use on missions into space. Each shuttle also had the ability to carry satellites and other large payloads into space, and could transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

After decades of use, the shuttles had just about reached the end of their useful lives. The Bush administration announced in 2004 that it would bring the program to a close.

First Shuttle Launch 1981 - Columbia

The end came as the space shuttle Atlantis rolled to a stop just before 6 a.m. on July 21, 2011. During its 13-day mission, Atlantis had ferried 8,000 pounds of supplies and spare parts to the International Space Station; with the retirement of the shuttles, the space station will now rely on Russian, European and Japanese rockets to bring up supplies.

In all, NASA built five shuttles for space flight — Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour. The first flight was made by Columbia on April 12, 1981. Three of the shuttles still exist today.

Columbia Explodes Before Landing

The Challenger exploded after takeoff on its 10th mission in 1986, killing all seven astronauts on board, including a New Hampshire civilian. And the Columbia broke apart as it was reentering the atmosphere in 2003, also killing its seven astronauts. After both disasters, review panels issued scathing reports, saying that pressures to complete missions and a more general culture of complacency had led officials to underestimate risks.

End of an Era

The program leaves behind a giant question mark over the future of manned space flight, with a replacement a distant reality.
At the direction of the Obama administration and Congress, NASA is developing a large new rocket to send deep into space. No destination has been selected, however, and money is tight. NASA is also trying to nurture a commercial industry that will loft astronauts toward the stars. But the ventures, which involve partnerships with private-sector companies like SpaceX and Boeing, focus on hardware development and so far have no declared goals beyond low orbits around the planet. The shuttles did that for decades, starting in 1981.

NASA is also counting on two commercial companies, the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation of Hawthorne, Calif., and the Orbital Sciences Corporation of Dulles, Va., to begin cargo flights in 2012.

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