- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 1, 2003

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Feb. 1 (UPI) — The happy anticipation of the return of the Columbia space shuttle turned to alarming grief Saturday, recalling the failings of 17 years ago when NASA lost a space crew in the Challenger disaster.

"The loss of this valiant crew is something we will never be able to get over," said Sean O'Keefe, who had been waiting at the Kennedy Space Center runway Saturday morning to welcome home the seven-member Columbia crew.

"They believed in what they were doing," added an ashen-looking Bill Readdy, NASA's associate administrator of spaceflight and a former shuttle commander. "We must find what happened, fix it and move on. We cannot let their sacrifice be in vain."

The crew died about 9 a.m. ET as their spaceship disintegrated over east Texas. The astronauts were gliding at 12,500 mph, moving 18 times faster than the speed of sound, to wrap up a 16-day space research mission with a touchdown in Florida, targeted for 9:16 a.m. ET.

The mission was the 113th in the shuttle program and the 88th since the 1986 Challenger accident, which also claimed seven lives.

NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe said an investigation board is being convened. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who flew as a guest astronaut on the mission before Challenger's final flight, also called for an independent Congressional inquiry.

"This doesn't come at a good time," Nelson said. "NASA has been starved for money over the past decade, but you can be assured there are people on Capitol Hill who believe space exploration fulfills a character of the American spirit. We are adventurers and we don't want to ever give that up. If we do, we will become a second-rate country."

O'Keefe said NASA has no indication that anything happened on the ground to disturb Columbia's flight. Concerns of a terrorist strike prompted high security and expanded restricted areas during Columbia's launch on Jan. 16.

Nelson said that the loss of Columbia likely would add urgency to NASA's call for additional funding for shuttle upgrades, though he hastened to add that there currently is no evidence that the shuttle's age — Columbia first flew in 1981 — had any bearing on the vehicle's loss.

Computers control the precise alignment of the shuttle's hour-long glide from orbit until a few minutes before touchdown when the commander takes over manual control of the ship. The heat generated during re-entry into the atmosphere is intense —several thousands of degrees Fahrenheit. "You can see the orange glow from the underside of the shuttle (during re-entry) ," said Nelson. "It's as if it were daylight."

Nelson said the loss of a few tiles would be unlikely to cause the vehicle's demise, however if something may have happened to trigger a domino effect.

Regardless of the cause of the shuttle's loss, Nelson said this country would not abandon its $25 billion investment in the space station program. Crew members could return home aboard the Soyuz escape vehicle and the station mothballed for a time until the shuttle was ready to fly again and resume construction.

(Editors: UPI photos WAX2003020124, WAX2003020125, WAX2003020127, WAX2003020128, KSP2003011502, KSP2003011503, KSP2003011504, WAX2003020126, WAX2003020101, WAX2003020104, KSP2003011603, KSP2003011604, KSP2003011605, KSP2003011606, KSP2003011607, WAX2003020102, WAX2003020103, WAX2003020118, KSP2003011601 and KSP2003011602 available)

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