For want of a nail, a shoe was lost. For want of a shoe a horse was lost. For want of a horse a rider was lost and so on until a war was lost. When all is said and done, the problem that caused the catastrophe witnessed by thousands will come down to a nail or some simple part that someone decided wasn't important. Many years in the Aerospace Industry taught me one thing. Everything is important, else the engineer who designed it would not have included it on the print.
My mother in law, Rita, had some business in Florida and was flying out of DFW on American Airlines. We were on the Airport Freeway about five minutes from the exit when my cell phone rang. It was my sister in law Kathy. I had barely said hello when she started with a million questions. "Where are you? Is Mother all right? I got her slowed down enough to ask her what the problem was and she told me the Shuttle had blown up. I assured her we were fine, that aircraft were still taking off and landing. Then, I looked up and to the East to see the vapor trail left by Columbia as it broke up over Dallas.
I turned the radio on to confirm what I was seeing. What I felt at that moment is hard to describe. What had started as a beautiful day in Texas suddenly took on a new meaning. Thoughts of another tragedy came to mind. A B-58, running supersonic tests, disintegrated over Oklahoma. The debris field from that mishap was very large even though the airplane was much lower and slower than the Shuttle.
I knew in my mind the astronauts aboard didn't suffer. Telemetry signals were present up until the explosion and controllers on the ground knew something was amiss. This may sound morbid but it is something I wonder about. The astronauts are usually wired very much like an EKG to monitor heart, pulse and other body functions. All this data is fed in to the same system that sends signals from the Shuttle control systems. My question is what sort of spikes occurred at the moment of decompression?
Another question. If the damage to the wing was noted on lift off, why didn't they do a space walk and survey the wing area? Did they have an alternate plan in the event of loss of one or more of the heat shield tiles? Is there any way to bleed off the speed at a rate that would not heat the shields to 3000 degrees? Why isn't the crew area impervious to damage to other parts of the Shuttle?
Millions of arm chair rocket scientists will be asking questions such as the ones I posed. That many and more will have their theories. I am sticking with the "nail" theory.