It was a terrible accident, at a terrible time. When the Space Shuttle
Columbia disintegrated 200,000 feet above Texas on the morning of February 1, seventeen years after Challenger, several things happened. Americans woke to another televised lesson in the dangers of an adventure that, surely, we had not really forgotten is perilous. We received a crash course in the complexity of the space program and of the shuttle system in particular -- the tiles, the heat, the speed, the data, the dollars (and, critics said, even in the early hours, the folly). Within hours we were reading seven suddenly heartbreaking biographies that gave fresh insight into the competence, coolness and clarity of purpose that seem to be in the DNA of all astronauts, whether they arrive from the pilot side or the science side. And we were made to consider, at the margins of the first day's unfolding drama, the plight of the International Space Station.
That's where the terrible timing comes in: ISS. Before the Columbia tragedy, 2003 was to be a make-or-break year for the troubled space station. Starting
in March, the first of seven critical shuttle launches to the ISS would get under way. Those seven launches would support an exciting building spree as NASA and its partners raced toward a 2004 completion date for the first phase of the station.
Shortly before the Columbia disaster, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe told Popular Science that February 19, 2004, was a date "emblazoned in the mind" of everyone involved with the program. It was clear that NASA relished the hard engineering challenges ahead, following more than a year of intense budget controversy and political sniping. With what now seems like ominous understatement, O'Keefe added: "I don't think there's anyone in the agency who is looking at this as a slam dunk."
February 19, 2004? Alas, the date now emblazoned on everyone's mind is February 1, 2003.
The Crew Gets the News
Two Americans and a Russian were onboard the ISS when Columbia re-entered the atmosphere. They learned about the accident an hour after it happened. "They feel a little isolated," said Flight Crew Operations chief Bob Cabana.
In those first hours post-disaster, while most of NASA's energy was focused on data and debris recovery, ISS managers took stock. An unmanned Russian Progress cargo ship was scheduled to be undocked from the station that day. The one-time-use Progress ships routinely supply and service the station. They generally take about two tons of freight to the ISS, then serve as a dumpster before being directed back to Earth's atmosphere, to burn up on re-entry. This Progress had to go because another was to be launched February 2. But with the shuttles now grounded, ISS managers had to pay close attention to the cargo load of the next Russian craft.
"We started working immediately with the Russians," said station program manager Bill Gerstenmaier the day after the disaster. "We ensured that the undocking didn't have any adverse impact on what we were going to do with the station, in light of the fact that the shuttle may not be there for a while. [Then] we went on to the next Progress and looked at its manifest, went through a very rigorous assessment to ensure that it was the right cargo."
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