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Farewell, Columbia

February 1, 2003, by Bill Cawthon

This is not the column I had prepared for this time and it is one I wish I wasn't writing.

This was the insignia for STS-107. The central element of the patch is the microgravity symbol, µg, flowing into the rays of the astronaut symbol. The sunrise represents the dawn of a new era for research on the International Space Station. The constellation Columba (the dove) symbolizes peace on Earth and the Space Shuttle Columbia. The seven stars also represent the mission crew members and honor the original Mercury 7 astronauts. The Israeli flag signifies the first person from that country to fly on the Space Shuttle.

Image courtesy of NASA. The NASA insignia design is reserved for use by the astronauts and for other official use as the NASA Administrator may authorize. Public use has been approved only as an illustration by the news media.

This morning, at around 8:00 A.M., local Houston time, NASA lost contact with the crew of STS-107 as it flew over North Texas. About the same time, video cameras on the ground recorded what looked almost like a meteor breaking up. They were capturing the last moments of the OV-102 Columbia and its crew of seven as the Shuttle broke up just fifteen minutes shy of its scheduled landing in Florida.

It's far too early to know what happened. As I write this, it is only hours after the tragedy occurred and law enforcement agencies and fire departments in North Texas are trying to find and secure debris, which is likely to spread from Nacogdoches County to the Louisiana border. Besides, it's certainly not the focus of this column. However, my fourth Promotex column (Happy Anniversary, Columbia!) dealt with the Orbiter Vehicle 102, the first of the American Space Shuttles to reach space and I wanted to remember the Columbia and honor her final crew.

Space Transportation System flight 107 lifted off from Pad 39-A at 10:39 AM on January 16. It was the first Shuttle launch of 2003 and the 113th mission in the Shuttle program. The 16-day mission was devoted to research and included more than 80 experiments to study Earth and space science, advanced technology development, and astronaut health and safety. The payload on Space Shuttle Columbia included FREESTAR (Fast Reaction Experiments Enabling Science, Technology, Applications and Research) and the SHI Research Double Module, also known as SPACEHAB. Other experiments on the module ranged from material sciences to life sciences. Payload Commander Michael Anderson joked the Shuttle was so packed; he had to cut his personal weight allowance and could take only his notebook and a couple of spare pencils.

STS-107 was Columbia's 28th flight in a career that spanned almost 22 years. It was on April 12, 1981 that mission commander John Young and pilot Robert Crippen flew the Columbia for the first time. Although it was the second Shuttle delivered, Columbia was the first to reach space. Columbia's most recent mission was in March of last year, when STS-109 went to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

At 10:39 AM EST on January 16, Columbia lifted off from Launch Pad 39A on mission STS-107.

Picture courtesy of NASA.

The loss of the Columbia is the second disaster for NASA's Shuttle program. Of course, the first came on January 28, 1986 when the Challenger exploded moments after liftoff. Ironically, on the 17th anniversary of the loss, while the STS-107 mission was in space, Mission Commander Rick Husband radioed back a message from the crew commemorating the loss of the crew of the Challenger.

This morning, Rick Husband, William McCool, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, Ilan Ramon, Michael Anderson and David Brown joined the Challenger crew and Apollo 1 astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee in immortality and we began to mourn our loss. As President Bush said, they did not make it back to Earth, but we can pray they made it home.

Now what will come? Of course, we will continue to explore space. In fact, I don't know that we can even afford to significantly delay future Shuttle missions. After all, there are people aboard the International Space Station who depend on the Shuttle for transportation and supply. As of today, NASA plans only a short delay in the next launch.

There will be more study to find what went wrong and, if it can be corrected, to modify the remaining vehicles in the Shuttle fleet. For all the progress we have made, it is important to remember we have only been flying in space for just over 40 years. Our vehicles are still relatively primitive and we are still learning as we go. Columbia was completed in 1979: there have been many new ideas since then (I covered a couple of the latest concepts just recently). With any luck, our history in space is just beginning. Continuing the journey is the best way to honor those who cannot be with us the rest of the way.

To briefly touch on the reason I write these columns, models of the Columbia have been popular. When I wrote my first column on it, the newly announced Dragons Wings model of the Columbia mounted on the modified 747 NASA uses as a Shuttle Carrier sold out before the column was posted. I understand Promotex can still get the models of the Orbiter, but you might want to check at before you place an order. [EDITORS NOTE: The Dragon Space Shuttle models are now Sold Out.]

The original topic for this time was announcements of new products displayed at Spielwarenmesse, the International Toy Fair in Nürnberg, Germany. That one will be posted as a special article. Next time, I'll be talking about ideas for police car models.

I'll see you then. In the meantime, remember a little prayer for the Columbia Seven and their families. May God bless them all.

The seven STS-107 crew members posed for the traditional crew portrait. Seated in front are astronauts Rick D. Husband (left), mission commander; Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; and William C. McCool, pilot. Standing are (from the left) astronauts David M. Brown, Laurel B. Clark, and Michael P. Anderson, all mission specialists; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist representing the Israeli Space Agency.

Photo courtesy of NASA.

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is an award-winning modeller and collector. His primary modeling interests are model railroading and vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales. He has written numerous articles for regional and division NMRA publications and is a contributor to the newsletter of the 1-87 Vehicle Club. He follows both the automobile industry and the European scale vehicle industry.

In real life, Bill is a full-time marketing and public relations consultant for the high-tech industry. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and four children.

Bill writes bi-weekly for Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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