- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

Columbia, the oldest craft in NASA's four-shuttle fleet, was completing its 28th mission when it disintegrated over Texas during re-entry yesterday.
But Ron Dittemore, the space agency's shuttle fleet manager, said he didn't think age was a factor in the incident. Others said that even with more than two decades of service, Columbia still was considered relatively young for a shuttle.
"Service life is 100 flights each," said David J. Shayler, a space historian who has written a history of manned spaceflight accidents. "It's nowhere near old. Old would be flying 20 years without stopping. Old would be flying a mission every week, and it hasn't done that."
Assuming an average flight of 10 days, Mr. Shayler said, the Columbia Space Shuttle was in service a total of 280 days over its 22-year life span.
But a French astronaut who took part in an earlier U.S. shuttle mission said Columbia should have been put out of use long ago. Patrick Baudry, who flew aboard the shuttle Discovery in 1985, said he was "up in arms" over the disaster.
"I think the shuttle should have been taken out of use long ago," he said. "It's a magnificent machine that the Americans developed, but extremely dangerous."
The Space Shuttle Challenger, which first was launched in 1983, exploded in 1986. Discovery was launched in 1984, Atlantis in 1985, and Endeavour, built as a replacement for Challenger, was launched in 1992. Another shuttle, Enterprise, is a suborbital test vehicle and has never flown in space.
Atlantis has flown 26 missions, Discovery 30 missions and Endeavour 19 missions. Challenger was beginning its 10th mission when it exploded.
Columbia, also known as "Orbital Vehicle 102," was first launched on April 12, 1981, and flew the first five shuttle missions. It had flown seven missions at the time of the Challenger accident. After the 32-month halt in shuttle operations after Challenger's explosion, Columbia didn't fly again until Aug. 8, 1989.
Columbia's final mission, involving dozens of experiments, began Jan. 16. It was the first shuttle mission in three years to be devoted mainly to experiments most of the other recent missions involved servicing the International Space Station, and its previous mission in March 2002 was to service the Hubble Space Telescope.
The first Israeli astronaut, Col. Ilan Ramon, was conducting an experiment to record desert dust particles in the atmosphere and their effect on weather.
The American crew members had performed experiments such as the Water Mist Fire Suppression experiment, which involved lighting fires and determining whether a foglike water spray could successfully put them out.
The crew had completed about 80 experiments during the mission. Although some results were downloaded by computer during the flight, much of the science was lost with the craft, said Mr. Dittemore, the shuttle program manager.
"For 16 days, this vehicle performed flawlessly," he said. "It was an amazing mission, and we were ecstatic over the results and looking forward to talking to the crew."
In 1999, after its 26th flight, Columbia was pulled from service for two years for its second major maintenance overhaul, involving more than 100 modifications. The flight that ended in calamity yesterday was its second since that overhaul.

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