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Comm Check...: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia 1st Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0743260916
ISBN-10: 0743260910
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Editorial Reviews

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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Product Details

  • 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 (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #916,837 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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I followed the Columbia accident very closely so I wasn't sure this book would have anything new for me, but I was surprised by its depth. The authors are veteran space journalists and were able to get interviews that no one else did. The retelling of how the critical information about the foam strike never got anywhere past a few bobbled opportunities to discuss how dangerous these foam strikes could be is fascinating. Many, many wrong turns were taken by people who thought the worst wouldn't happen, at least not during their hectic workday. A great book and the only book about the Columbia accident worth reading.
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Format: Hardcover
When Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart over East Texas, the morning of February 1, 2003, the country mourned for astronauts and the space program yet again. Columbia, on Mission STS-107, came apart during reentry just a few minutes away from its scheduled landing in Florida. My first fear upon hearing about the tragedy was that it was a terrorist attack, especially since the mission included the first Israeli on a shuttle mission. That was replaced by the fact that a small chunk of foam doomed Columbia. I listened to as many newscasts, read as much as I could and tried to understand how that small piece of foam insulation could bring down one of the most complex machines ever built.

Soon transcripts were made available of the last few minutes of the flight. Houston finally realized that there was a problem long after veteran observers on the California coast noticed the shuttle breaking apart. Transcripts and data from onboard sensors revealed that the shuttle was burning up, inside out from the heat of reentry. They also revealed that the crew had no idea that anything was wrong.

News started falling off about the loss of Columbia and the crew of STS-107 until I saw a blurb about "Comm Check." Apparently someone had received a pre-publication copy and I knew that I had to get my hands on a copy when it came out.

I read the book in only a few settings. Michael Cabbage and William Harwood, veteran space journalists presented fairly tight storylines from the background of the astronauts, past NASA history (including the Apollo launchpad fire and the 1986 Challenger disaster), a timeline of Columbia's reentry interface, NASA business culture, the accident investigation, findings and a wrap-up.
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I have no reservations in recommending this book to anyone who wants to learn more about the Columbia disaster. This book isn't "technical," in the sense of giving lots of equations etc. Rather it gives a thorough non-technical, managerial, and cultural description of events.
All of this book's sections are well written, and fit into a cohesive whole. There's the required section describing how things unfolded on that awful morning. The authors also describe the doomed members of Columbia's crew, and the unusually long period of training and delays they had to go through to get to space in the first place. This gives a glimpse into the space station and shuttle politics within NASA, and also gives a real human touch to the tragedy. Esp. with details such as Rick Husband's decision to make Kalpana Chawla the flight engineer, helping her to redeem her career as an astronaut after an earlier mistake.
There's background from previous flights to set the stage, esp. the near-catastrophic foam strike on Atlantis, 2 flights before Columbia. This section shows NASA's inadequate response on a past flight, which then leads into the description of the debris assessment team's work during Columbia's mission. I found this section particularly enlightening, and I could relate very much to it, working in a large organization myself. All too understandable, and thus even more frustrating.
The work of the CAIB is described more in broad-brush strokes, since it took place over a much longer period. But its points are well taken. NASA's organization repeated the mistakes of Challenger, despite some very good work on some other safety concerns with the shuttle. The author's give a blow-by-blow account of how Columbia came apart in this section, which is gripping reading.
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"Comm Check..." tells the story of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia. If you are expecting a top-level, academic analysis, like the one found in Diane Vaughan's "The Challenger Launch Decision", then this book is not for you. It is a well written book with lots of human interest anecdotes about the people and the organizations involved in the tragedy. It is factual and reasonably well organized but is written with a sense of drama that I found both distracting and unnecessary. At times, the continual stream of mini-biographies made it hard to follow the book's main theme. While interesting, I gained little from the litany of who went to which school and who had flown so-many thousands of hours in jet fighters. Even the the climactic chapter "Re-Entry Revisited" was light duty in terms of the technical information and overly dramatized events from the astronauts perspective.

If you are just starting to research events surrounding Columbia's loss or are simply interested in learning the whole story, this book is a good starting place. It provides the "big picture" in an easily understood fashion. However, it lacks the depth and comprehensive coverage that one would expect from a well done historical summary. Also, there is minimal analysis, of the events leading up to and following the loss of Columbia, beyond a superficial compilation of basic facts and the conclusions of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. The few conclusions expressed by the authors are neither insightful nor motivating.
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