It may come as surprising to many who read this, but the 1st of February is quite significant to the history of the United States, and in fact the world. In fact, many things that have taken place on this day will never be forgotten. Sure, there are those that are more momentous than others, but some things that have taken place on this day have taught valuable lessons to the future of mankind.
Of course, there are some things that may ring a bell with many but not necessarily be seen as that big a deal, such as the ‘unfortunate’ exposure of Janet Jackson during Superbowl XXXVIII, although it inspired a smile in many. Then, in 1977, director Roman Polanski skipped bail, fled the country and never came back due to the case against him regarding sex with a minor. The minor in question, Samantha Geimer, no longer a minor in this case lasting 31 years now, wants the case dismissed, stating the fallout has caused her and her family far more grief than it is worth. ‘Late Night with David Letterman’ is still a big hit on the late night circuit, beginning on this date in 1982, but it’s doubtful anyone would consider this anything more than trivia. The same thing could be said for Jim Morrison exposing himself back in 1969.
Some births mean more than others on this day, and many Elvis fans would know that Lisa Marie was born on this day in 1968. Bill ‘Will Robinson’ Mumy of ‘Lost in Space’ was born on this day in 1954, and the late Rick James was born in 1948. Ten years before that, the world received Sherman Hemsley of ‘The Jefferson’s’. But what the world will remember most about the 1st of February and the valuable lessons we learned is the deaths of the astronauts aboard the Columbia, which was destroyed on this day in 2003.
The crew of the Columbia was David Brown, Ilan Ramon (the first Israeli in space), Kalpana Chawla (the first Asian Indian woman in space), the mission’s physician Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson, Rick Husband, pilot William McCool, and Michael Anderson. These seven brave people died on this day when mission STS-107, the Columbia on its 28th mission, disintegrated over Texas upon reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
After an extensive investigation, it was learned the Columbia was destroyed because of damage done to the left wing’s Thermal Protection System. Although while the ship was in orbit, some engineers feared there was damage done, but felt that little could be done about it. This damage was done by a piece of errant insulation foam from the external fuel tank (the piece about the size of a briefcase) that was, in fact, a source of concern by many engineers and officials because the problem was known about but not met with a suitable solution. Further, scarring of heat tiles was found after most shuttle missions because of this problem, but since this particular mission was the 113th shuttle mission, some coined the demeanor of mission command as ‘normalization of deviance’, meaning that although problems were recognized before, since they brought about no disaster before, their potential for disaster was minimized.
The fact that the foam piece broke away approximately 82 seconds into the launch, when the ship had achieved a remarkable speed of 1,870 miles per hour, made what might seem like an insignificant piece of material suddenly a high-speed projectile. That projectile knocked a hole in the wing approximately 10 inches in diameter after hitting it at about 800 feet per second. That allowed the severe heat experienced at reentry to penetrate and degrade the wing, leading to catastrophe. The craft was going about Mach 18 when it broke apart 0900 that morning of February 1st.
This tragedy tells us a lot about where we are in our level of technology and how much our space exploration programs are still in their infancy. The Columbia mission was doomed 82 seconds after launch since there was so little that could have been done, even if NASA knew the magnitude of the damage. The capabilities of the space shuttles would not have allowed the Columbia to merely return to the International Space Station, since they were in the wrong orbit and therefore not able to achieve that location. There is speculation a rescue mission could have been done by shuttle Atlantis, but the limitation is that shuttles carry limited amounts of consumables such as water and air; the Atlantis rescue mission would have needed to be rushed, and if anything went wrong, there would not have been another option.
It is fair to say the astronauts knew the risk when they went, and all astronauts who have gone since and intend to do so in the future know these risks, too. But all are willing to accept that risk because of the importance of these missions to the future of humanity and perhaps our world. While many may assume that humanity’s continuing adventurous spirit leads to these disasters and could very well do so again, and therefore they are not worth the risk, many others believe our drive to go beyond our world is a very real need. A need so real that some believe it is a natural tendency of an emerging civilization, or even an instinct, imbedded into us by nature because of the fact that the planet in itself is mortal. This mortality of the planet guarantees the demise of all life on the planet if none of that life escapes that inherent mortality to carry on elsewhere.
If these adventurous spirits are correct, the lessons learned by disasters such as that of the Challenger and the Columbia are leading us forward into the survival of not just the astronauts who continue forward in their memory, but possibly of any life originating on Earth. By that measure, these people are true heroes who deserve to be remembered throughout human history, regardless of where that humanity goes. Therefore, what took place on the 1st of February, 2003 should never be forgotten for as long as humanity exists.