On February 1,2003, at about 8 p.m. `Beyond Moon and Mars (BMM)'' left office--The Times of India--in Mumbai and was returning home
BMM was eager to get back early and follow the TV coverage of space shuttle Columbia landing at the Kennedy Space Centre which was expected to take place in the next few hours This flight was of special significance to many of us in India because among the seven crew members was Kalpana Chawla, whom BMM had interviewed after her first flight in November 1997. The story hit page one.
No sooner BMM got home, it's wife, Usha broke the news that Columbia had lost contact with the mission control centre at Houston. She said that everyone was prepared for the worst. And their apprehensions proved true. Kalpana was no more. Our daughter, Rimanika, was not at home at that moment---being a Saturday she had gone out to meet her friends.
BMM had a quick dinner and rushed back to the office Usha told BMM that when Rimanika came home and was informed about what had happened to Kalpana and her crew mates she cried uncontrallably that night.
While helping with the coverage of the disaster, one thing struck BMM---would it have been too late to execute a rescue mission and save the crew members? If they had known about the tile damage earlier could they have not docked with the International Space Station? These were some of the stray thoughts which entered BMM's mind.
Now, we have the possibility of such a rescue scenario in a super science fiction book called ``Launch On Need,'' written by a space buff Daniel Guiteras. BMM read the book slowly, grasped every detail because it did not want the book to finish!
To recap the events briefly in this book, space shuttle Columbia and its crew have been flying for less than a day unaware for sometime that a large piece of the shuttle's external tank foam struck Columbia's left wing just 81.9 seconds after lift off. Under these circumstances the spacecraft will not survive the fiery re entry. A Nasa launch imaging expert, Ken Brown, e mails the info to his friend, John Stangley, a former CNN correspondent. This becomes a major scoop, for the journalist--being a journalist BMM knows what it means to receive such a tip off. Indeed, it happens once in a life time in one's career as a journalist.
Nasa debates the seriousness of the issue, holds meetings with its experts and finally decides to embark on what is indeed the riskiest and perhaps the most high profile space mission---rescuing the Columbia crew with another shuttle, Atlantis which also suffers a tile damage.
Reading chapter after chapter about how Nasa planned the mission and how it was finally implemented, it is indeed really impossible to believe that the book is a work of science fiction. It is the result of hard work---Guiteras has done a lot of research before writing the book and studied every minute detail of the space shuttle. Thus it gives an impression that it is by no means a work of fiction, but an actual space drama which has been recounted in a way which sustains the readers' interest and attention from the beginning to the end. Congrats Daniel. Certainly, BMM will be reading it again.
Apart from the book describing the rescue attempt, it also provides a lot of data about the shuttle itself which spacefbuffs like BMM found very interesting. Coincidentally, it read the book when Atlantis is on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Centre getting ready for its final mission possibly on July 8.
What surprises BMM is that an organisation like Nasa has never seriously thought of a rescue attempt in space. For example, even if by chance the Apollo astronauts had got stranded on the surface of the moon for some reason or the other--the main possibility being the failure of the ascent stage of the lunar module to lift off--there was no rescue plan which could have been activated. What is worse, even an obit had been prepared about the astronauts who have got stuck on the moon. Why should this be so?
Anything can happen in space and manned missions are risky. Considering this space agencies all over the world must prepare a rescue mission. ``Launch On Need,'' emphasises the importance of a rescue exercise and space organisations have to take this book seriously and view it as a sort of a guide rather than a bed time fiction.
BMM followed the first launch of Columbia on April 12,1981 on the radio and TV. Over the years it has felt an empathy towards this particular shuttle! So, when the book concluded with the damaged shuttle being destroyed by a navy missile, BMM could not help wiping a tear.
All in all a super book which spacebuffs like BMM will treasure. Be sure BMM will read it again and it will be very soon. We are looking forward to the larger e version of the book.
Once again congrats Daniel. More power to your pen.