- Hardcover: 336 pages
- Publisher: Free Press; 1st edition (January 27, 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0743260910
- ISBN-13: 978-0743260916
- Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #305,100 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Comm Check...: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia 1st Edition
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About the Author
Since 1994, Michael Cabbage has reported on more than 40 shuttle missions and covered human spaceflight on three continents. In 1998, he joined the staff of The Orlando Sentinel where he is the newspaper's award-winning space editor. He also has served as a space consultant to ABC News. A University of Tennessee graduate, Cabbage earned a master's degree in journalism from Stanford University.
From The Washington Post
What is it about the space program, anyway? When the Mars Rover began sending pictures to Earth a while ago, the NASA Web site received more than a billion hits within a couple of days. When President Bush wanted to find a national goal that would transcend everyday concerns, he chose returning to the moon. Why, in a time of war and terrorism, are our spirits lifted because a small machine millions of miles away sends back some photographs, or when our political leaders remind us of larger goals?
You won't find much attention to this intriguing question in Comm Check. What you will find instead is a gripping, detailed account of what happens when you try to translate the glowing vision of space exploration into the nuts and bolts of real-world accomplishment. The authors, both veteran reporters on the NASA beat, have taken as their subject the tragic events of Feb. 1, 2003, when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere over the southwestern United States. Starting with a short description of the horrified silence that fell on the control room in Houston when instruments lost track of the craft, the authors walk us through pre-launch preparations 16 days earlier, the disaster itself and the investigation that followed.
The story is a complicated one, involving a chain of technical and bureaucratic errors. During the launch, some insulating foam came off the external fuel tank and crashed into the leading edge of the craft's wing, opening a hole about a foot wide. The damage couldn't be seen from the spacecraft and wasn't picked up by ground cameras during launch. Higher-level executives ignored warnings from engineers and vetoed requests that damage be assessed by photographs from highly classified military surveillance satellites, although later analysis showed that even if the damage had been documented, nothing could have been done to save the astronauts once they were in orbit.
The authors' account is highly readable and largely free of technical jargon. When they introduce a new player, they always give a thumbnail sketch of the person's background to give you a sense of who he or she is. They also include a very useful appendix of acronyms to help the reader deal with NASA-speak, though sometimes the details get a bit overpowering. Closet techno-geeks like me, for example, will be absolutely mesmerized by the second-by-second account of what happened to Columbia's left wing as it re-entered the atmosphere, but the eyes of the general reader may well glaze over. Interspersed with the details are some fascinating bits of information. When President Bush was told about the disaster, for example, his first words were "Where are the families?" -- a reply I took to be a significant insight into the man's value system. Ultimately, the authors give us as complete and readable an account of the Columbia disaster and the inside workings of NASA as we are likely to get.
But in the end, the significance of this book, particularly at this moment, derives from what it has to say about the debate going on in the space program -- the questions of whether we should be sending humans into space at all. As the Columbia disaster shows, this is both risky and expensive. Wouldn't it be better, some argue, to send out (relatively) cheap robots rather than fragile humans to explore the solar system?
I suppose this argument would make sense if the only goal of the space program were to gather data on the planets. But sometimes, when I'm in a contemplative mood, I think about humanity's move away from our home planet in a different way. I wonder what history books will say about our generation 500 years from now. In that perspective, the great conflagrations of the 20th century -- even World War II -- will mean no more than the War of the Spanish Succession does to us today. The War on Terror, whether it turns out to be the start of a clash of civilizations or just the dying gasp of a fundamentalist ideology unable to move into the 21st century, will mean no more than the Crusades. In the end, I think, we will be remembered primarily for our many scientific achievements -- splitting the atom, decoding the genome. But most of all, they will say about us, "Yes, they were the first people to walk on the moon."
And I want to tell you, my friends, that there are a lot worse things to be remembered for.
Reviewed by James Trefil
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.
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Top customer reviews
I would recommend this book for those who want to learn more about the event and a good starting point to dig deeper if you are researching the event.
If that makes Columbia an acutely painful reminder that not only experts, but whole agencies and their management can be dead wrong, perhaps even NASA can salvage enough to prevent such tragedy in the future.
Co-authors Harwood and Cabbage go deeply inside the NASA bureaucracy, to the specific people who made life-and-death decisions, based on their beliefs and presumptions at the time. NASA's ambitious program of launching shuttle after shuttle as though on an assembly line created high political expectations and withering demands for success, at almost any price.
The authors find a NASA culture a bit too driven for its own good, one where administrators were sorely tempted to cross lines and risk the safety of even our astronauts.
Recalling the decision of NASA program manager Linda Ham to cancel a request to take photos of suspected damage to the shuttle's wing, one witness to the conversation said Ham wanted to cancel simply because there was nothing mission control could do, even if the shuttle were seriously damaged. "... you know, even if there was damage, there is nothing we can do about it."
In plainest terms, Ham rationalized the yawning possibility of damage to the shuttle as an abstract and entirely peripheral issue, because the cost of dealing with it as a crisis was simply unacceptable. Rather than make certain all the facts were known for the safety of the astronauts, Ham simply ignored the looming disaster, shutting down all further checks of fact and condition, gambling that all would be well. Clearly, Ham also knew that if photos showed damage, she would be forced into scrubbing Columbia's mission, in order to stage an emergency recovery.
Bill Harwood is a veteran CBS reporter on NASA and other space ventures, and Michael Cabbage is space editor for the Orlando Sentinel. Their co-authored book is one of the best on the Columbia disaster.
In fact, I have only one very minor complaint: there are a lot of spelling errors. I realize that's a bit pedantic, but other books can get it right - why not this one?
Other reviews are right -- there is no NASA-bashing. It is a fair and unbiased retelling of the story, as you'd expect from people like Bill Harwood and Mike Cabbage. Its impact lies in having the whole story told all at once. It's a lot to take in. The gravity of the disaster hits the reader pretty hard, especially when reading the theory of exactly how the shuttle disintegrated, stage by stage. The authors were vivid but at no time disrespected the lost crew or their families.
I highly recommend this book. Below is the table of contents:
3 "Safe to Fly with No New Concerns"
5 A Shot in the Dark
6 Mixed Signals
9 Echoes of Challenger
10 Re-Entry Revisited
11 Returning to Flight
Most recent customer reviews
Illustrations, or maps, that would have made this an even better read.