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Saturday, February 01, 2003

Ringing phones

In the last few months, and especially in the last few days, we have flinched each time the phone rang. Life and our slippery grip on it has been a major topic of conversation among us and our immediate and extended families. And each time the phone rings, we look at each other, neither of us wanting to answer.

It has become a sort of unspoken rule...whoever is dealing with the most immediate crisis answers the ringing phones. This morning, it was my wife.

We both were being lazy at the time. I had only been out of bed long enough to let the dog outside. I crawled back in the warm bed and hoped life would be close to normal in the world and in our lives. January had brought plane crashes, mountain fires and winter storms to the people who live around me. The month had brought frozen pipes (on the superficial end) and a family death for the people who live in this house. Just yesterday, as January began to make it's way toward its end, I spoke out loud.

"February has to be better," I said.

My dog had been trying to call back under the blankets when I heard my wife say, "Oh, God." I thought I heard my dad's voice on the other end of the phone and thought to grab the receiver. My wife was asking questions and I heard answers. It was my dad on the other end of the line. She had hung up before I was thinking clearly enough to do anything.

It was not a family tragedy in the traditional sense. But it was a tragedy nonetheless. The Space Shuttle Columbia, streaking to earth like a comet, burning a red image across the country's radar screens.

Most of the people around me are too young to remember the Space Race of the 60's. But I know few people who don't vividly remember January 28, 1986.

Our interest in the space program has waned in the years since then.

Funny...much like going to war, the average American now has a hard time understanding why we spend the money to break the Earth's atmoshere. There isn't much of anything tangible it gives back to Joe Sixpack. When it all began, we went looking for moon rocks. Moon packs are passe now.

Somehow today feels different than 1986. We watch a tragedy, no doubt. But it is different. Don't ask me how. In fact, e-mail me...I'd like to know why it feels different.

It has been 17 years and four days since the idea of space travel has so dominated our television screens.

All I know is that my wife is now refusing to answer the telephone.


Editor's note: After last publishing, I found the on-line pseudo-blog of some space writers in in Florida... Click here for the whole thing, and it's updates.

This part, the part that goes from mundane to tragedy, is the most chilling...

8:29 a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003

Discussions are ongoing in Houston and here in Florida about which runway the shuttle will land on. Columbia is targeted for Runway 33 now, but there is discussion about a possible switch. Crews on the ground here on making preparations just in case that change is made. They'll be prepared for whatever decision is made by controllers in Houston and shuttle Commander Rick Husband.

8:34 a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003

It's breezy with a few clouds at the Shuttle Landing Facility. The convoy of landing support vehicles is on its way but yet to arrive. Security helicopters are now making passes over the runways and the roads near the SLF.

8:36 a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003

Columbia will cross the Florida panhandle, fly briefly over the Gulf of Mexico on a path that will take it over Orlando heading eastward toward the landing facility. This will be the 62nd landing of a shuttle at Kennedy. Winds are coming from the west at 5 knots, well within limits for a nominal landing.

8:39 a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003

Astronaut Kent Rominger and Educator-Astronaut Barbara Morgan are doing the weather reconnaissance here at Kennedy Space Center this morning. They are flying in the shuttle landing training aircraft, making approaches to the runways to test the landing conditions and reporting back to Houston controllers. Morgan, by the way, is slated to fly on a shuttle mission scheduled to launch later this year.

8:42 a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003

The convoy has arrived at the landing facility to support the landing of Columbia. The orbiter will remain on the runway longer than normal today as crews unload the many science experiments on board.

The astronauts also are in for longer-than-normal physicals because they too were test subjects for many experiments on this flight. They will see family members who are in town for the landing, but the astronauts themselves will not be able to fly home to Houston until Sunday.

8:46 a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003

Exactly 30 minutes from landing and still no decision on which runway the shuttle will use. Discussions are ongoing. The orbiter is dropping into the atmosphere, moving at 17,000 miles per hour and 68 miles above Earth.

8:51 a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003

A decision to switch to Runway 15 is being discussed now. The shuttle is 3,450 miles from touchdown here at KSC.

8:52 a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003

Columbia's altitude is about 47 miles, moving at 16,400 miles per hour. Commander Husband has the shuttle in the first of a series of hard banks, which help to slow the orbiter for landing. Columbia is approaching the coast of California right now.

8:55 a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003

VIP guests, including crew members' loved ones, have arrived at the Shuttle Landing Facility. Several members of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon's family are among them. The Israeli delegation, here for the mission of that country's first spacefarer, has been well guarded in all of their travels here on the Space Coast, both for launch and today's landing.

8:56 a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003

Twenty minutes to touchdown and no announcement yet of a runway change. The orbiter is flying over Nevada near Las Vegas.

8:57 a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003

Columbia is near the Arizona-New Mexico border moving at just over 14,000 miles per hour. Husband has taken the orbiter into the second of four banks, slowing the orbiter down.

9:06 a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003

Ten minutes from wheels down.

9:20 a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003

NASA has lost communication with the orbiter and has no tracking data.

9:28 a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003

Mission control is silent. There was never a sign of the orbiter here. There was brief discussion of an instrumentation problem aboard the orbiter just before communications was lost but no explanation. Then, Merritt Island tracking station did not pick up the orbiter's signal. It was believed last contacted over Texas.

9:32 a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003

A search and rescue team is being dispatched to Texas, where it is believed the orbiter broke up during descent. Very, very little is being said here about what has happened in part because officials appear not to know yet.


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