salaam, Columbia

President Ronald Reagan had this to say in his speech just hours after the Challenger disaster, Jan. 27th, 1986:

For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we're thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, "Give me a challenge and I'll meet it with joy." They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.

We've grown used to wonders in this century. It's hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years the United States space program has been doing just that. We've grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we've only just begun. We're still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.

And I want to say something to the school children of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.

I've always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don't hide our space program. We don't keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That's the way freedom is, and we wouldn't change it for a minute. We'll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.

I have criticized Bush many times about policy, but I am revolted by those who would try to use this tragedy to advance their own anti-Bush agendas. I have critiqued our foreign policy, but I am disgusted with those who see this as yet another excuse to wallow in anti-Americanism.

The truth is, that the space program is the heart of humanity, and that heart lives and breathes within the American nation, and no where else upon this earth. In that spirit, the seven astronauts who died today are not just American martyrs, but martyrs for humanity, against ignorance and against despair.

When Challenger happenned, I was in 7th grade and we were actually in Iraq, on a religious pilgrimage to certain sites of great significance to we Shi'a. It was my first trip to the middle east, and I remember hating every moment. My only comfort was my GI Joe toys I had smuggled along. Sitting at the airport lounge in Baghdad, waiting for our flight home, an elderly Arab came up to us and said with great sorrow, "your American missile has been destroyed." It took a few minutes of further questioning to ascertain that he meant the Shuttle, and I simply couldn't believe it was true. Only when we got back home and saw the infamous Y-cloud on every newspaper, that the reality sank in.

This morning, I was sitting in the waiting room at Texan Ford in Katy, TX, working on my MATLAB code on my advisor's laptop, when the television cut to breaking news - NASA had lost contact with the shuttle Columbia. I looked at my cell -it was 8:30 am.

This tragedy is the entire nation's - and India and Israel, who lost a native daughter and son. But for Texans like myself, it's more personal. The woman whose Explorer was in the shop for vibration, got off the phone with her parents in Dallas and said that they heard sonic booms. The service representative guy told us that his friends in Palestine and Lufkin (both about halfway between Dallas and Houston, see map) were already reporting debris on the ground. A Continental Airlines pilot (which is based in Houston) reported seeing debris rain down from the sky just a few miles ahead of his plane as it flew out of Houston. Nagodoches seems to have been hit with the most debris - The First National Bank of Nagadoches has some metal in their parking lot, the fire chief had a metal panel land on his roof. And a guy driving to Dallas from Houston called into KTRH and reported that he could see the fireball from I-45, even though he was still just south of Huntsville. The fireball was even visible as far south as The Woodlands, a suburb in north Houston near Bush Intercontinental Airport. Driving into the Medical Center from Katy, all the flags were already at half-mast, even though it had only been 2 hours since Columbia broke up. And for the residents of Clear Lake and Webster, this tragedy is the most personal of all, because astronauts live and work there, as do most of the employees of the Johnson Space Center (home to Mission Control, and only 10 minutes from my home).

Courtesy of Glenn, below is the NEXRAD radar report from Shreveport LA which clearly illustrates the extent of the debris field over eastern Texas. The sparkling area in the center is just scatter - the actual debris field is the red line which evolves eastward in a wide swath. You can clearly see how the flight path continued eastward into Louisiana. Similar NEXRAD data is available from Fort Polk and Lake Charles, further south (click to see those radar animations). The closest radar data from Texas sites is too far too the west. SpaceFlight Now has a very detailed log of the re-entry, since they track each shuttle flight in amazing detail. And Glenn Reynolds has the definitive post, collating all the information in the blogsphere so far.

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