Thursday, October 04, 2007

Beep...beep...beep...

Fifty years ago today, the Soviet Union hurled the world's first satellite into space. Tiny Sputnik I was an unexpected shock to American pride, and the beginning of "the space race," an intense competition between the Soviets and Americans that was a scientific and technological parallel to the Cold War. The Cold War is over, and one happy outcome of detente is the International Space Station, a collaborative work in progress of several nations, but most especially the United States and Russia. Working together has highlighted the differences in the American and Russian space programs -- differences of philosophy, hardware, and personalities.

On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia was on its way home from a rather ho-hum journey into the wild black yonder, with a crew of seven astronauts, five men and two women, who had spent two weeks performing science experiments on the Space Station. Somewhere northwest of Hawaii, Columbia touched the upper molecules of the atmosphere on its long glide to a planned landing at Cape Kennedy, Florida, Deeper and deeper it gouged into the air, and friction began to heat the craft's protective tiles orange hot. Unbeknownst to the astronauts, one of those those tiles on the leading edge of a wing had been fatally damaged at launch by a loose piece of foam from the external fuel tank. Flames licked through the hole and began to devour the shuttle's wing from inside its heat-resistant skin. As the space craft streaked over the southern United States, it shattered into a thousand charred pieces of metal, tile, and human flesh.

The demise of Columbia made big news. Lost in the excitement was a story that weighed heavily on NASA administrators. Three humans remained in space -- two Americans, Ken Bowersox and Don Pettit, and a Russian, Nikolai Budarin -- as the current crew of the Space Station, orbiting 220 miles above the Earth. It was obvious that another shuttle would not be flying any time soon. Three astronauts had lost their ride home.

With the shuttles grounded, it became the Russians' responsibility to bring the astronauts back to earth, ferry up fresh crews to take their place, and keep the space station supplied and in working order. This meant relying on older hardware with a dicey safety record -- Russian-built Soyuz space capsules -- museum pieces by this time. When Bowersox, Pettit and Budarin crammed themselves into Soyuz TMA-1 and disengaged from the Space Station -- well, Chris Jones tells the story in Too Far From Home: A Story of Life and Death in Space. The thrilling climax is the plummet of Soyuz from the silent grandeur of space into the wilds of Kazakhstan. This time, stolid Russian engineering, rather than American techie pizzazz, saved the day.