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Columbia: Space Shuttle Disaster (DVD Review)

24 Jan, 2009 By: John Latchem

Street 2/3/09
WGBH Boston
$24.99 DVD
Not rated.
Narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The most heartbreaking footage on display in this episode of PBS’ “Nova” is video recorded just moments before the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry Feb. 1, 2003.

Astronauts are heard discussing the bright buildup of ionized gas outside their ship, and trying to get a better view out the window. Just a few minutes after the tape ends, that hot plasma would burn through a hole in the left wing, killing everyone on board.

The tape underscores the overwhelming sadness of the Columbia tragedy. Seven people died for a mission in which they believed, for reasons that may have been avoidable.

“Nova” traces the problems back to the inception of the shuttle program during the days of the Apollo moon landings. The shuttle was designed to ferry cargo and personnel to grand space stations in Earth orbit. But as the 1970s dawned and public interest in spaceflight waned, the space stations were canceled, and the shuttle was redesigned to haul satellites and conduct scientific research. As is typical in a bureaucracy, multiple needs led to numerous design conflicts.

One engineer laments that a shuttle accident had been destined from the earliest design stages.

Much of the problems were known by the time the space shuttle Challenger exploded during launch Jan. 28, 1986. Engineers had also been acutely aware of problems caused by foam insulation from the rocket’s fuel tank impacting the shuttle’s heat shield during the violent rumbles of takeoff. Such incidents had caused minor damage on nearly every shuttle flight, but the vessel returned intact each time.

With each successful mission, those in and around NASA began to regard shuttle flight as routine, and the shuttle itself almost as a space plane. This would prove to be a dangerous attitude.

This “Nova” special expertly explains all the problems of the mission, using fresh interviews, archival footage and computer animation to re-create the doomed flight. The show uses the tragedy of Columbia to segue into a preview of some of America’s new space initiatives, and the rockets to be used once the shuttle fleet is retired over the next few years.

Typical of a PBS DVD, the disc includes optional audio descriptions of on-screen action for the sight-impaired, as well as printable DVD-ROM teachers guides and classroom activities.

The crew of the space shuttle Columbia.


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