Today's Papers

No Coming Home

The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times devote their entire front pages to coverage of yesterday’s Columbia disaster. The space shuttle, upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, broke apart and disintegrated into flames. All seven astronauts aboard were killed.

The WP notes that in 42 years of U.S. manned space flight, this is the first accident during the descent to Earth or landing. Columbia’s disaster is also the first fatal calamity to a space shuttle in general since the Challenger explosion 17 years ago.

The papers take a cautious approach to the question of what happened. As the NYT writes, “In past space accident investigations, early theories often proved wrong.” Right now, the paper says, there are merely clues. A piece of foam insulation fell off the ship’s left fuel tank and hit the left wing during the Jan. 16 launch. This may have damaged the ship’s protective heat tiles, which experts finger as the disaster’s “likeliest culprit.” Several other possibilities are also put forward, including an explosion of the ship’s fuel and oxidizers; collapse in the shuttle’s structure; faulty navigation setup; a collision with space debris; or terrorism.

All theories, including the one about the connection between Columbia’s launch and descent, are preliminary. “We can’t rush to judgment,” said Ron Dittemore, NASA space-shuttle program manager.

As for terrorism, the papers mostly back off from this possibility. The shuttle was traveling too high and too fast for a surface-to-air missile to hit. 

The NYT says that yesterday’s events will be the subject of two investigations—one conducted by the space agency and one by a board of independent outside experts. This, the paper says, is “a quiet acknowledgment that the agency has been accused of cover-ups in past disasters, including the Challenger accident.” The WP adds word that the Department of Homeland Security will also look into the accident.

The papers recount the final communication between Columbia and Mission Control. Mission Control’s last words to reach the crew on board dealt with concerns about the craft’s tire pressure. Columbia Cmdr. Rick D. Husband’s response, the last words back to Mission Control, were “Roger, uh …” Communication went dead after that.

The WP acknowledges the diversity of the crew—three white American men, a white American woman, a black American man, an Israeli national, and an Indian immigrant. “The astronauts were a combination of steely test pilots and modern-day engineering phenoms,” the paper writes. Four members of the crew were on their first mission.The first Israeli in space, Ilan Ramon, was already a national hero, having flown missions in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1982 Lebanon war, and the 1981 mission to destroy Iraq’s nuclear reactor. (Here’s a picture of the entire crew.)

On the ground, debris fell over a 100-mile-wide stretch in Texas. The LAT says that near the Louisiana state line, officials were reported to have recovered partial human remains. Elsewhere, the main concern was getting people away from the fallen debris, as experts concerned themselves over possible contaminating toxins used to fuel the ship. No injuries on the ground have been reported so far.

The WP fronts a damning piece about the tragedy, a story of the “experts who voiced concerns about lapses in oversight and deferred safety improvements for NASA’s aging fleet of space shuttles.” In April, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel warned Congress that NASA’s management had caused some very large safety concerns. NASA disagreed, saying safety was still top priority. The agency’s budget has declined 40 percent in the last decade. Three days ago, the General Accounting Office criticized NASA’s major contractors and accused the space agency of placing “little emphasis on end results [or] product performance.” The LAT says that NASA’s fleet is “aging.” The paper also says that the agency looked into selling Columbia as a commercial venture or parking it permanently at the international space station to be used as an emergency escape vehicle.

President Bush, in an address to the nation, mourned the disaster and its victims, and said, “our journey into space will go on.” The NYT says that after hearing of the accident, Bush’s aides discussed what the president should say to the nation and how it would “affect his efforts to rally public opinion behind a war with Iraq.”

News of American-Iraqi developments gets pushed to the back of the paper. In the WP, Iraq doesn’t appear until the 18th page. The administration is debating how much intelligence Secretary of State Colin Powell should release when he makes the U.S. case against Iraq to the U.N. on Wednesday, the paper reports. The paper also has a new poll, which it says shows support for war growing after Bush’s State of the Union speech. Sixty-six percent now favor military action against Iraq, compared to 57 percent two weeks ago. The WP also carries a short AP report that says Iraq has pledged to use “suicide attackers” against the U.S., in the country and abroad, should Iraq be attacked.

The WP says that the two journalists being held captive by Colombian leftist guerrillas have been freed. Scott Dalton, 34, a photographer from Conroe, Texas, and Ruth Morris, 35, a British citizen who grew up in Los Angeles, were held for 11 days by the National Liberation Army, a group the State Department considers a terrorist organization.

Finally, getting back to the Columbia, all the papers include instant-analysis TV critiques. The NYT says in the first four hours that newscasters scrambled to cover the accident, broadcasts were “in turn impressively authoritative and irritatingly improvised and confused.” The WP reports that MSNBC was the only network planning to cover the landing live and “an MSNBC reporter waiting at the Florida landing site was probably the first to tell viewers that communication with the shuttle had been lost.” The LAT says that someone at CNN actually asked this question: “The fact that you saw five pieces and heard five sonic booms, did you realize immediately there was trouble?” But the strangest comment goes to CBS news anchor Dan Rather. The NYT reports that at 11 a.m. Rather took a call from a man who claimed to be an eyewitness. The man said he had found teeth from one of the astronauts and called Rather “an idiot.” CBS cut off the call, and Rather explained that goofballs and crank calls were part of the business.  Rather continued, “I am an idiot, but that is beside the point.”