Students across campus reacted with sadness, shock and worry as they tuned in to news stations to watch footage of the disintegrating Columbia space shuttle Saturday, a tragic event eerily reminiscent of the Challenger explosion 17 years ago.

Shabina Khatri
Rick Renteria of Racine, Wis., prays outside Racine Horlick High School after hearing that alumni astronaut Laurel Clark was killed aboard the space shuttle Columbia.

“I was completely blown away,” said junior Jason Hernak, external vice president of the Engineering Council. “Socially, it’s a horrible time for it to happen, given the economy and the threat of war.”

President Bush responded in an address to the nation shortly after the shuttle went down, quoting Scripture and reassuring a commitment to the space program.

“The same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to earth but we can pray that all are safely home,” Bush said. “The cause in which they died will continue. Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on.”

Aerospace engineering senior Marni Rosenthal said she is glad Bush allowed NASA to conduct its own investigation, adding she is also relieved that the investigation was not being carried out under the auspices of homeland security.

NASA halted shuttle launches for two and a half years after the 1986 Challenger explosion until evidence could be gathered and analyzed and changes made.

“This is a tragic thing to happen to the space program,” Rosenthal said. “I think it will set back the space program a couple of years. It will take a long time to find the causes. It’s sort of like after TWA flight 800 – not much is going to survive intact.”

Aerospace Engineering Department Chair David Hyland said he didn’t think the accident would put space travel permanently on hold.

“I don’t think people who believe in manned space flight will be deterred from this career by this accident,” he said.

“Those seven astronauts gave their lives to open new frontiers for mankind. I think we’re going to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and continue.”

Hyland called for increased safety. “Hopefully NASA or the administration will decide to augment the budget for safety concerns. Many elements of the shuttle design are a few decades old,” he said, adding that Columbia is the oldest space shuttle in the United States and that the budget for space flight had recently been cut.

“Despite Murphy’s Law, we have an outstanding record of success,” said Hyland. He pointed out that the United States has launched 113 shuttle flights to date. “The incidence of failure is pretty small.”

Hyland said space travel is very precise. “(During) every single flight, there are numerous things that must go exactly right,” he said.

“You can have the best people doing the best things with the best technology and bad things can still happen, like a few tiles coming loose.”

Engineering freshman Greg Berman said he thinks that time should be taken after the accident to improve safety.

“I think we should spend more time developing technology that would be safer and more efficient.”

“For sure we have to look into this to see the causes,” he added.

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