2 February 2003
Israeli, US astronauts die in shuttle blast over ‘Palestine’
By Barbara Ferguson,
Arab News Staff


WASHINGTON, 2 February 2003 — All seven crew of the American space shuttle Columbia, including the first ever Israeli astronaut, were killed yesterday when the craft disintegrated in flames just minutes before it was scheduled to land.

In a tragic irony, the Columbia exploded with its Israeli astronaut on board over a city named Palestine in the state of Texas.

The cause of the disaster was not immediately clear, but residents in north Texas heard a loud boom as Columbia passed overhead.

“I could see two bright objects flying off each side of it,” said Gary Hunziker. “I just assumed they were chase jets.”

Another, John Ferolito, heard a noise “like a sonic boom” as Columbia went over Dallas.

Television footage showed a bright light followed by smoke plumes streaking through the sky. Debris appeared to break off into balls of light as it continued downward. Residents of Nacogdoches, Texas, found bits of metal strewn across the city.

Officials in Washington said there was no indication of terrorism. The disaster, said the National Aeronautical and Space Administration, occurred when the craft was flying at 12,500mph, at a height of 203,000ft, far too high for any ground-to-air missile.

Investigations of technical malfunction may first center on the fact that a piece of insulating foam on the craft’s external fuel tank came off shortly after lift-off on Jan. 16.

Whatever the cause, the accident dealt a powerful shock to American confidence and throws into doubt the entire manned space program.

But President George W. Bush vowed the space program would continue. “The cause in which they died will continue,” he said. “Our journey into space will go on.”

Bush raced back to the White House from the Camp David presidential retreat in response to the tragedy. Earlier, he spoke to the families of the astronauts.

On board Columbia were six Americans and Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, a former air force colonel. The commander of the shuttle was Rick Husband, 45, an Air Force colonel from Amarillo, Texas, who was selected as an astronaut in 1994 on his fourth try. Among his crew were William McCool, 41, a navy commander from Lubbock, Texas, and father of three sons; Kalpana Chawla, 41, one of the two women on the flight, who emigrated to the US from India in the 1980s and became an astronaut in 1994; and Laurel Clark, 41, the flight surgeon, who became an astronaut in 1996 and who has an eight-year-old son.

The mission was the 113th flight in the shuttle program’s 22 years and the 28th flight for Columbia, NASA’s oldest shuttle. The disaster came 17 years, almost exactly to the day, after the shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after lift-off, killing all seven of its crew. In 42 years of human space flight, NASA has never lost a space crew during landing or the ride back to orbit.

As the Columbia’s crew prepared for re-entry, astronaut David Brown joked with mission control: “Do we really have to come back?” As the rising sun burned off the early morning fog the controllers in Houston gave the seven astronauts clearance to begin the run for home. “I guess you’ve been wondering,” they radioed Columbia, “but you are now to go for the de-orbit burn.” Those words marked the beginning of the descent to doom.

“Once again we see that space technology can fail,” Bruce Gagnon, international coordinator for the Global Network against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, told Arab News last night. “I’m troubled because the Bush Administration has recently announced a program called the ‘Nuclear Systems Initiative’, a $1 billion research and development program to expand the launching of nuclear power into space. The problem is that as you increase the numbers of launches carrying nuclear payloads into space, but you are also going to dramatically increase the chances of a catastrophic Chernobyl in the sky.”

Asked why NASA was advising extreme precaution at the crash sites, Gagnon said: “We haven’t heard that there was a nuclear payload on this shuttle, but one of the great hallmarks of the Bush administration is increased secrecy. I must admit that when NASA said no one should go near a site because of the toxic potential of the fuels and ‘other reasons,’ I couldn’t help but wonder what those reasons are.”

Due to cuts in NASA’s budget in recent years, NASA has been forced to turn to the Pentagon for increased funding, said Gagnon. The result is that the space shuttles are now also NASA missions and carry both military and civilian technologies.

“What you have now is the military takeover of the space program. NASA is not just about gazing at the stars, it now also has a political and military agenda.” What is of concern, he said, is that the Pentagon in now working on a program called the “Space Based Laser.” “Its nickname is the ‘Death Star,’ and its job is to destroy other country’s satellites, and also hit targets on the Earth below. NASA hopes to have the first operational tests by 2016 or 2017,” Gagnon explained.

“This would give the US full control and domination of space and the earth below, because whoever controls space will control the Earth.”

(Additional reporting by David Randall of The Independent in New York)


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