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Terrorist interference the least likely cause

By B Raman
February 02, 2003 06:26 IST
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Around 8:20 pm [IST] on February 1, 2003, I was, as per my routine, browsing my favourite Web site, when I noticed an alert by one of its members that, according to a flash on CNN, contact had been lost with US space shuttle Columbia when it was returning from space.

I was reminded of an equally poignant tragedy involving the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, as it disintegrated shortly after takeoff killing all the astronauts aboard, one of them a woman. One could see the entire disintegration, in shocking disbelief, live on TV.

Everyone who watched those tragic moments knew or assumed that the tragedy must have been due to a mechanical failure. No one suspected that terrorists might have had a role even though the tragedy took place at a time when violence was at its peak in West Asia and a suicide bomber had, three years earlier, killed a large number of US marines in Beirut.

The tragedy involving the Columbia, on the other hand, has given rise to speculation that terrorists might have been involved because of the presence of Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, on the shuttle; the lingering trauma in the US more than 16 months after 9/11 and the fast approaching confrontation with Iraq.

US officials, including those of the newly created Homeland Security Department, have, therefore, lost no time in saying that they have no reasons to believe that the tragedy could have been due to an act of terrorism. The shuttle was at such a high altitude and speed that it would have been impossible for any terrorist to have brought it down.

There is a possibility that the shuttle had been tampered with before it was launched. However, before any launch a shuttle is subjected to the strictest of physical checks. The Columbia had received an even greater security cover because of the presence of the Israeli astronaut.

Possible terrorist interference with the mission is, therefore, the least likely cause of the tragedy. By unnecessarily and unwisely speculating on it, one would be only playing into the hands of the psychopaths by attributing to them a capability they are not known to have.

The tragedy was, most probably, due to a mechanical or a structural failure. At the time of launching and re-entry, on-board computers handle the shuttle and the role of humans is minimal. The extreme heat caused during re-entry and the consequent high-level of ionisation around the shuttle results in a break in communication between the shuttle and the ground station for about 10 minutes.

It was during this period that the tragedy seems to have taken place, giving the commander of the shuttle no opportunity to inform the ground control of any problem. Only a detailed and painstaking post-mortem of the mission will enable the experts to determine what went wrong.

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B Raman