Americans awoke Saturday morning to learn that the space shuttle Columbia had burst into flames upon re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere after a 16-day journey through space, disintegrating 39 miles above central Texas and killing all seven astronauts aboard. “The Columbia is lost,” President Bush told the nation Saturday. “There are no survivors.”

With threats of war in Iraq polarizing the nation and the world, the tragedy seemed to unite Americans and people across the globe, and Georgetown students reacted to the tragedy.

“I was shocked. It took all of us by surprise. We just assume that everything goes right because everything has always gone right,” Matt Connolly (COL ’04) said.

The crew included six Americans – flight commander Rick Husband, pilot William McCool, payload commander Michael Anderson, mission specialist Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist David Brown and mission specialist Laurel Clark – and one Israeli, payload specialist Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli to travel into space. Chawla was the first Indian-American woman to travel to space.

The Columbia was the oldest of the four shuttles in the fleet and had been taken out of commission in 1999 for extensive renovations, returning to space last March.

The disaster was the third in the history of the U.S. space program. On Jan. 27, 1967, a fire in the command module of Apollo I claimed the lives of all three crewmembers during a pre-flight test, and on Jan. 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

“As a generation, we are too young to remember Challenger, so this is really the first time we’ve experienced a major accident in space flight,” Connolly said. “We take for granted the success of the system.”

“I never thought that something like this could happen. I was shocked,” John Coghlan (COL ’06) said. “We never really pay attention to space flights because they seem so routine.”

The disaster caused an outpouring of support from around the world. Foreign governments across the globe offered President Bush their condolences while Israel grieved the loss of its first astronaut.

At the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., museum workers built a makeshift memorial in the main hall, which featured a 15-foot tall model of the space shuttle Columbia.

“Beginning Saturday morning, museum patrons established a spontaneous memorial, bringing flowers, cards, letters, candles and even a copy of the Torah. We also put out two comment books, which we also had after the Challenger disaster and Sept. 11,” a museum spokesperson said. “On Saturday we had a television broadcast of NASA-TV, which we have for all launches and landings, and the media has been here constantly for three days.”

Although the museum has not seen increased attendance, most museum patrons have congregated near the memorial, the spokesperson said. The museum will also broadcast today’s memorial service at 12:45 p.m. from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

On Capitol Hill, the Senate passed a resolution commemorating the astronauts who perished in Saturday’s accident and delayed legislative business until Wednesday so that Senators could attend tomorrow’s memorial.

“Each Columbia crew member was a pioneer,” Senate ajority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn), said. “I also know they would want us to determine the cause, to fix that cause and to move on in the same spirit of exploration.”

While NASA has formed both internal and external investigations of the accident, several theories have emerged speculating as to the cause of the accident. A heat spike and drag on the left wing may have been caused after foam debris from the fuel tank collided with the wing shortly after launch on Jan. 16, causing heat-absorbing ceramic tiles to come lose. Ceramic tiles on the wing absorb extreme heat – reaching 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit – during re-entry; the absence of these tiles might explain why the spacecraft burst into flames 16 minutes before its scheduled landing at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The disaster has led some to question the need to send humans into space as well as the future viability of the International Space Station, which currently has three cosmonauts stationed in orbit.

However, Lt. Gen. Jefferson Howell, Jr., director of the Johnson Space Center, affirmed NASA’s commitment to continued space exploration in a Feb. 2 press release.

“While we understand the risks that are inherent in human spaceflight, it does not lessen the human tragedy we’ve experienced as we proceed to go through a period of grieving and healing,” he said. “Part of our healing process will be to continue our support of the Expedition Six crew aboard the International Space Station to ensure their continued success and safety. We will persevere, and we will forever honor the memory of the STS-107 crew by continuing our dedication to space exploration and research.”

Georgetown students agreed that human space exploration should continue.

“Discontinuing or rolling back the space program would be an insult to the memory of the astronauts and the dream that they lived,” Alex Sanjenis (COL ’03) said.

“As long as people are willing to travel into space, we should continue to explore the depths of the universe. Astronauts are clearly aware of the risks,” Connolly said. “It’s necessary to have humans in space to continue progress and see the tangible benefits of the International Space Station. We must continue man’s great quest to explore beyond our global frontiers.”

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