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Paper No. 594                                       01/02/2003

by B. Raman

Around 8-20 PM Indian Standard Time (IST) on February 1,2003, I was, as per my usual routine, browsing through my favourite web site of, when I noticed an alert by one of its members that, according to a flash on the CNN TV channel, contact had been lost with the US space shuttle Columbia as it was returning from space and getting ready to land in another 15 minutes.

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

3. Everyone, who watched those tragic moments in 1986, knew or assumed that the tragedy must have been due to a mechanical failure. There was not even the slightest suspicion in anybody's mind that terrorism might have had a role even though the tragedy took place at a time when terrorist violence was at its peak in West Asia and a large number of US Marines had been killed in Beirut by a suicide bomber three years earlier.

4. The present tragedy involving Columbia, on the other hand, has given rise to questions as to whether terrorism might have been the cause because of the presence of the first  Israeli astronaut (Ilan Ramon) on board the shuttle, the still lingering trauma in the US more than 16 months after 9/11 and the fast approaching confrontation with Iraq.

5.US officials, including those of the newly-created Homeland Security Department, have, therefore, lost no time to underline that they have so far no reasons to believe that the tragedy could have been due to an act of terrorism. Whatever happened to the shuttle took place at such a high altitude and at a time when it was re-entering the earth's atmosphere at more than a dozen times the speed of sound that it would have been impossible for any terrorist to have caused the tragedy from the ground unless there had been tampering with the shuttle on the ground before it was launched.

6. All shuttle launches and landings have always been subject to the strictest of physical security precautions to prevent third-party mischief and the latest mission of Columbia received an even greater physical security cover than all previous missions because of the presence of the Israeli astronaut.

7.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 psychopathic terrorist elements by attributing to them a capability they are not known to have .

8. The tragedy was, most probably, due to a mechanical or a structural failure. At the time of launching and re-entry, a shuttle is largely handled by the on-board computers and the role of the human element is minimal.The extreme heat caused by the re-entry and the consequent high-level of ionisation around the shuttle results in a black-out of communications between the shuttle and the ground stations for about 10 minutes. It was during this black-out period that the tragedy seems to have taken place, giving the commander of the shuttle no opportunity to inform the ground control of anything amiss on board. Only a detailed and pains-taking post-mortem of the mission would enable the experts guiding the mission from the ground to determine what probably went wrong. 

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, and Convenor, Advisory Committee,Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter. E-Mail: )