Shortly after eight o'clock on the morning of February 1, Columbia, the oldest of the space shuttle fleet, disintegrated over Texas at an altitude of 203,000 feet. The shuttle was returning from a 16-day research mission that had all the earmarks of success. Then, the potentially toxic debris covers a football shaped area over 500 square miles.
Early investigation shows no signs that the disaster was caused by a terrorist attack. For militant Islamists who rejoice over the tragedy, the incident was Allah's vengeance. For the civilized world, NASA lost seven brave men and women, who slipped into eternity.
These were the first lives lost in a space mission since the Challenger disaster 17 years ago, and the first in over 40 years to lose their lives on the landing phase of a space mission. While NASA's safety record is indeed marvelous, we must never lose sight of the inherent danger in space travel. When the shuttle first enters the earth's atmosphere, traveling over Mach 40 (40 times the speed of sound), the precision required in flying that portion of the trajectory is well beyond routine. Small disturbances of the spacecraft's orientation in this stage of the flight can lead to large errors in the trajectory. Re-entry at an angle just slightly too large can cause the spacecraft to burn up. Although the shuttle made its re-entry at a proper angle, it broke apart while being exposed to the peak temperature of 3,000 degrees on the leading edge of the wings, while traveling at 12,500 mph, or Mach 18.
There are some indications that damage to the left wing of the shuttle that occurred at liftoff could have contributed to the failure of the thermal protection system over a portion of that wing, which started exhibiting sensor failures and other problems 23 minutes before it was scheduled to touch down. With just 16 minutes remaining before landing, the shuttle disintegrated. For a system this complex, there are many potential causes that must be investigated. Key portions of debris may not be found for months or even years.
All of these observations point to the biblical truth that "man does not know his time" (Ecclesiastes 9:12). As Columbia astronaut and devout Christian Col. Rick Husband said regarding the lost Challenger astronauts, "They made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives and service to the country and for all mankind," he radioed from Columbia, ironically before the airwaves went silent. "Their dedication and devotion to the exploration of space was an inspiration to each of us and still motivates people around the world to achieve great things and service to others." Little did he know what lay ahead in his journey.
Despite the profound grief and sadness, despite the blow to NASA and the country, the exploration of space will continue. Although safety is paramount in the design of spacecraft, space travel will continue to be dangerous; but it will continue to attract those who are among the bravest and most dedicated young men and women. It will continue to be an inspiration to each of us and to motivate people around the world to achieve great things. After all, it was God who placed in the heart of man the desire to "take dominion" (Genesis 1:26). It is God Who inspires man to achieve great things. "He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end" (Ecclesiastes 3:11).