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Review: Columbia—Final Voyage

Columbia—Final Voyage: The Last Flight of NASA’s First Space Shuttle
By Philip Chien
Springer, 2006
Hardcover, 464 pp., illus.
ISBN 0-387-27148-1

February 1st marked the third anniversary of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its crew of seven astronauts. You can be forgiven if you missed the anniversary: compared to the last two years, the event got precious little attention in the media. As Orlando Sentinel space editor Michael Cabbage noted in a blog posting, the anniversary was the subject of very few standalone articles, as many publications elected to focus on the 20th anniversary of the Challenger accident just four days earlier. Cabbage wrote, “For reasons I’ve never fully understood, Challenger still seems to haunt Americans in a deeper, more visceral way than Columbia.” One reason may be that compared to Challenger , STS-107 was a relatively anonymous mission that got very little attention in the media throughout its 16-day flight, despite the inclusion of the first Israeli astronaut in its crew. Many people were reportedly unaware that the shuttle had even been in orbit immediately prior to the accident. Worse, the accident and resulting investigation overshadowed the mission itself—what the astronauts were doing in orbit, and why. Philip Chien’s new book, Columbia—Final Voyage, is an effort to rectify that situation.

As Chien lays out in detail, STS-107 was in many respects an anomalous mission from the beginning. In an era where the shuttle was devoted almost exclusively to the assembly and servicing of the International Space Station, STS-107 was a “free flyer” mission that would spend 16 days in orbit performing dozens of scientific experiments without visiting the station. Inserted into the shuttle manifest under direction from Congress in the late 1990s after scientists expressed concerns about the impact ISS assembly delays were having on microgravity science, the mission’s launch date slipped over a dozen times, from May 2000 to January 2003, with the mission forced to defer to ISS shuttle missions that NASA considered to have a higher priority. The suite of experiments also varied, and at one point STS-107 was intended to launch Triana, the controversial Earth observation satellite championed by then-Vice President Al Gore. The addition of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon to the crew further set the mission apart. One might think that these differences would help attract attention to the mission, but instead the mission became more obscure at a time when NASA was devoting far more attention to the ISS.

In terms of explaining the mission itself, Columbia—Final Voyage is unparalleled, and unlikely to be equaled given the sheer amount of information Chien has compiled.

To say that Chien exhaustively examines the STS-107 mission might be a bit of an understatement. The first part of Columbia—Final Voyage goes into detail about the crew and other people involved in the mission, with each astronaut getting a chapter-long biography. That’s followed by the long run-up to the mission’s eventual launch. The core of the book is part 3, where each day of the mission itself is dissected in deep detail, from the specific experiments the crew worked on to the wake-up music played by mission control twice each day (the STS-107 crew split into two shifts to allow them to work around the clock.) Chien then recounts minute-by-minute the accident itself, and the investigation that followed. However, the investigation gets far less attention than the mission: the formation of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), for example, doesn’t come up until less than 100 pages from the end of the book. For a fuller account of the investigation, readers should consider the 2004 book Comm Check… by Cabbage and Bill Harwood (See “Reviews: Columbia plus one year”, The Space Review, February 16, 2004.)

In terms of explaining the mission itself, Columbia—Final Voyage is unparalleled, and unlikely to be equaled given the sheer amount of information Chien has compiled. (More information, including photos, audio, and video, is available on a separate CD-ROM (not reviewed here) available for sale on the author’s web site, which itself has additional multimedia content not included in the book.) Sometimes it may seem like there’s too much information: do we really need to know, for example, what Kalpana Chawla ate for her first meal in space on a mission preceding STS-107? Chien can be a little repetitive too: on page 187 he uses an analogy—a piece of paper quickly slowing down after being tossed out of a moving car—to explain how the chunk of foam that fell of Columbia’s external tank quickly decelerated; the same analogy, with almost the exact same wording, is used just nine pages later.

Chien singles out many people for criticism surrounding STS-107, but perhaps none quite so strongly as the media. In a tone that edges on bitterness, he notes that only a few reporters—himself included—covered STS-107 while the shuttle was in orbit, only to have the media descend en masse on the Kennedy Space Center and other NASA facilities in the aftermath of the accident. In several cases he criticizes the media for their lack of knowledge about the mission and the shuttle program in general, or simply for some of the actions they took (like a Jacksonville, Florida TV station that sent reporters to KSC immediately after the accident to do live reports even though they “had not bothered to cover NASA activities for the last decade”). While ideally reporters should have been better informed about NASA and STS-107 prior to the accident, it’s not clear that they acted any differently in the wake of the accident than they have in recent years for other sudden disasters, from terrorist attacks to hurricanes to mining accidents.

If the perception that Columbia is fading from our collective consciousness far faster that the Challenger accident or even Apollo 1 is true, it would be ironic, since Columbia may end up being far more influential over the long term that than the other two manned spaceflight accidents suffered by NASA to date. Apollo 1 did not cause NASA to surrender its quest to land humans on the Moon, and Challenger, while triggering some long-term changes in national launch policy, did not lead to the end of the shuttle or then-nascent space station program. Yet the loss of Columbia and its crew was the flash point that started a long-needed overhaul of the nation’s space program, resulting in less than a year in a new Vision for Space Exploration that marked the beginning of the end of the shuttle and the start of a new quest to return humans to the Moon. Columbia’s long-term importance, then, will be tied to the ultimate success or failure of the Vision, but regardless, Columbia—Final Voyage reminds us that the accident that has reshaped the American space program was not an abstract event but rather a tragic end to a mission involving hard-working astronauts trying to extend the frontiers of science.