This morning, at 9am, the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up and disentegrated over northern Texas after begining it’s descent towards home. All 7 astronauts are feared dead and no cause has been determined as of yet.
I wish the familes of those seven scientists and aviators my sincere, heart-felt condolences, as well as those people who work to make space flight possible, as dangerous as it has proven to be.
I can’t imagine what it was like for the seven crew members of Columbia in those final seconds.
In 1990, I had the privelage of attending Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. I was a young teenager with a verocious appetite for both science and flight. I would lay awake at night and think of doing all sorts of aerial stunts in fast aircraft, sitting down with graphing paper and designing my own satellites and spacecraft, and yearning to be able to live free of earth’s bonds.
At Space Camp, I was picked as the co-pilot for the Endeavour shuttle simulator. All of the kids were assigned their roles based on their expressed interests. Half of the team would be in the shuttle simulator, and the other half would man the very realistic Mission Control center. Keep in mind that each one of us were boys and girls, all barely into our teens.
We spent all week studying for our roles. After a few tests, we were briefed on the mission we would undertake. Our mission in Endeavour was to spin up and release a communications satellite into earth orbit. As co-pilot and second-in-command of the rest of the shuttle crew, it was my specific job to fly the shuttle during launch, re-entry, and landing.
I distinctly remember, as we were strapped into the true to scale, very accurate shuttle cockpit, saying a little ode in my mind for the Challenger astronauts who lost their lives not 4 years earlier. After lifting off and guiding the shuttle through it’s initial half-roll, I held my breath as that was when the Challenger astronauts met their fate.
The mission progressed well, the satellite was succesfully released and sent to geosynchronous transfer orbit… and then it was time to strap in again and grab the stick for the ride home to KSC.
When flying the shuttle during re-entry, you have to keep the shuttle at a constant 15-degree angle of attack. This is so the shuttle uses it’s broad underside for aerodynamic braking as well as spreading the generated heat over the most surface area. Too little AOA, and you’ll streak through the atmosphere and burn up. Too much, and you’ll slow too rapidly and not have enough energy to get home.
Flying that thing through the atmosphere was incredibly hard. The computer screens that served as the space shuttle’s windows went red. The simulator’s hydraulics shook and rocked the cabin incessantly. All my orientation and status data was fed via the read-outs and guages in front of me. Passing through the ionosphere, you don’t even have communication with Mission Control. You are all on your own, machine and man totally interdependant on each other for coming out of it safely.
But, safe in our simulator, we did. After gliding for a while, the single runway of KSC appeared in front of us. I executed two flares, used to adjust the speed, and we touched down with a semi-rough landing and popped the drag chute.
If only it could’ve been that simple and well for the astronauts of STS-107.