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MIT Campus Reacts To Shuttle Disaster

Mourning Students, Faculty Pay Respects

By Nathan Collins


As somber students, faculty, and staff of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics entered to pay their respects, many stopped to write their thoughts and condolences in an empty book that sat at one end of the room.

Photographs of crew of the space shuttle Columbia had been projected on a screen in the Learning Laboratory, and the STS-107 mission patch and a group photo framed the book.

After a week of signing, “we’re going to send it to the astronaut corps in Houston,” said Ian A. Waitz, the deputy department head.

The event, Waitz said, was an “opportunity for people to come together and share some thoughts.” After Department Head Edward F. Crawley ScD ’80, Waitz, and other professors spoke, the crowd broke up into smaller groups to talk about the accident.

For some in the crowd, the loss was personal. Charles M. Oman PhD ’72, a senior research engineer, knew Laurel Clark, a mission specialist on Columbia. Oman had worked with Clark’s husband, John, a Navy flight surgeon.

Oman remembered fondly how Clark had a penchant for proper grammar and quality writing and that “she was absolutely committed to the idea of long-duration spaceflight.”

“It’s obviously an enormous loss,” Oman said, noting that Clark left behind an eight-year-old son. Hers “was a life well lived,” he said.

Astronauts “are prepared to sacrifice their lives” to further science, Crawley said. He compared space travellers with early Polynesian pioneers, who would “either find the next island, or they probably would not return.”

Crawley said that more astronauts come from MIT than from any other nonmilitary institution. “MIT is a place about learning,” he said. “Let us remember the tremendous sacrifice ... and let us learn so we can do it better in the future.”

Astronaut, investigator at MIT

Jeffrey Hoffman, a senior lecturer, was an astronaut from the early days of the shuttle program and was in Houston when the shuttle broke up. He had gone to a celebration at his former synagogue and was to speak about Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut.

After Columbia missed its landing, Hoffman said he “knew right away it was bad. It’s not like an airplane.” Space shuttles, he said, operate on rigid schedules.

In addition to initial grief, “given the way it happened, there was a disbelief,” because liftoff was considered the most probable time for an accident, Hoffman said. “We can never forget that space is a harsh environment” that doesn’t tolerate error, he said.

Re-entry, Hoffman said, is usually a wonderful time. Re-entry is “spectacular ... you’re in a fireball.” Astronauts experience “an incredible light show” combined with “this bizarre feeling of weight coming back,” he said.

While not close with the Columbia crew, Hoffman knew them all, he said. “It’s like a big family down there,” he said. “It’s horrible for everybody.”

Hoffman said he is happy the investigation is being done openly. “Everyone’s determined” to find and fix problems.

Covert served on Challenger panel

Professor Emeritus Eugene E. Covert ScD ’58 was a member of the Rogers commission, which investigated the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.

Word of Saturday’s accident came to him as he ran morning errands. When he got home around 11a.m., “suddenly the telephone started ringing and it has rung incessantly ever since” from calls from the news media, he said.

A key advantage over the Challenger investigation, Covert said, was that debris landed on the ground. Much of the Challenger debris fell into the ocean, making recovery difficult and hindering analysis of the shuttle’s explosion.

“I think NASA and the other investigators will get to the bottom of this, but there is a possibility we’ll never know what happened,” Covert said.

Those investigators include an MIT alumnus, James N. Hallock ’63, who was named Sunday to serve on NASA’s Space Shuttle Mishap Interagency Investigation Board, to be headed by retired Navy Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr. Hallock earned an SB, SM, and PhD in physics from MIT. (See “NASA Investigation Focuses On Heat Build-Up, Insulation,” page 2.)

Community reacts to pain

The MIT community reacted with similar heartache to news of the Columbia accident.

President Charles M. Vest wrote in an e-mail that he learned of the incident when his daughter called him after his morning jog.

“My wife and I watched [the news] and it was immediately apparent that a disaster had occurred,” Vest wrote. “I just found it heartbreaking to think of the loss of all these fine people.”

“I think it’s a very sad accident,” but it is impetus “to go even further,” said Jean-Benoit Ferry G, a graduate student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Ferry said he hoped the accident would not stop the space program, a sentiment echoed by other students.

Sandi S. Lin G said that Saturday reminded her of the Challenger accident. It “just brought me back to that time.”

Despite the risks, space travel “should be a priority,” Lin said.

Isaac B. Feitler ’04 heard the news on the radio. “I woke up listening to [National Public Radio]. It took about five minutes before I realized what they were talking about.”

“I feel sad about it,” Feitler said. Despite the fact he didn’t know the astronauts, and even though they knew the risks, “being around here, at MIT especially, [we feel] a kinship with the astronauts.”

Feitler said that NASA should continue to send astronauts into space.

JoHanna N. Przybylowski ’05, president of the MIT Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, said that the group had found space for a temporary memorial in Lobby 10. “It’ll be an enlargement of the shuttle patch,” she said.

“We had an open office,” Przybylowski said. “NASA TV was on,” and students came in to watch the coverage and talk.

Some students reflected on how the current shuttle disaster came to be. “Part of the problem,” said Joy Sumner, a Cambridge-MIT Institute exchange student, “is people are beginning to see space travel as an everyday thing.”

Of course, space travel is not an everyday thing. Hoffman said that, on the last night of his first shuttle flight, he looked out a window toward an earth shrouded in night. “I saw this bright trail below me,” he said. As an astronomer, Hoffman knew this was a meteor, but he second-guessed himself -- you look up at meteors, not down.

Then he realized he was floating above the atmosphere.

“I’m up in space ... and then I thought, that’s what we’re doing tomorrow,” Hoffman said. The next day, he and his crew hurtled shining through the atmosphere and landed safely home.