Kentucky astronaut’s mission delayed due to Columbia tragedy

Dave Shinall

Kentucky’s only astronaut, Marine Corps Col. Terry Wilcutt, still hopes to command space shuttle mission STS 116.

But his flight’s been delayed.

All shuttle flights are on hold until NASA scientists, engineers and crash investigators find out what went wrong during the final minutes of shuttle mission STS 107 Saturday morning.

His mission was set to launch July 24.

“We will find out what went wrong, and we’ll fix it,” Wilcutt said.

Images have been replayed over and over of the 22-year-old Columbia breaking apart during reentry.

NASA’s oldest of four shuttles disintegrated 16 minutes short of landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

NASA officials speculate that a piece of fuel tank insulation which broke off during launch Jan. 16 may have damaged the shuttle’s left wing, causing problems on reentry when outside hull temperature reached 3,000 degrees.

The 178,000-pound Columbia was traveling at 12,500 mph, or Mach 18, at 207,135 feet when it broke apart above north central Texas.

Searchers found the remains of all seven astronauts Sunday.

Wilcutt, who graduated from Western in 1974 with a degree in mathematics, knew and worked closely with the five men and two women who died on Columbia.

“They were seven extraordinary people,” he said. “The astronaut office, as you might imagine, is a really close knit group of friends. And we just lost seven friends.”

Other astronauts escorted victims’ relatives on flights from NASA headquarters to the crash site in rural east Texas.

“Before every mission, just in case the worst happens, we have people assigned to contingency action teams or mishap support teams,” he said. “Every crew member’s got someone assigned to them to take care of their family. All those teams were called in.”

Wilcutt and astronauts not directly assigned to the Columbia mishap support team filled in the gaps, taking care of small, human aspects of the national tragedy.

Mishap response team members from NASA, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, the FBI, the National Transportation Safety Board and local law enforcement have been gathering debris. Parts are scattered over a radius of 500 miles across east Texas and western Louisiana.

Barksdale Air Force Base, La., is where recovery teams are consolidating wreckage and piecing together clues.

“Historically, we don’t fly another mission until we resolve any issues with the previous flight,” Wilcutt said. “So, the mishap investigation will have to be finished before they approve the flight of another shuttle. How long that’ll be, we just don’t know.”

Wilcutt, who’s logged 1,007 hours in space, said he’s confident the second disaster of the shuttle program won’t end the program.

“The exploration and research of space is just too important to let it die,” he said. “And what a shame that would be to respond to this tragic loss by saying we’re going to stop the program.”

The Columbia disaster will likely force NASA officials to consider using unmanned spacecraft, Western astronomy professor Richard Hackney said. But he opposes unmanned flights.

“There’s the element of man’s presence in space,” Hackney said. “We give that up, we’ll never explore beyond the bounds of Earth again.”

His research using NASA satellites to look into the centers of other galaxies dates back 35 years.

The congressman who represents the Bowling Green area sees solid congressional support for manned shuttle launches.

“We’ve invested too much in the space program to turn back now,” said Ron Lewis, 2nd District Republican U.S. Representative. “I’m sure if you could talk to those astronauts who gave their lives for what they believe is very important for the future of mankind, they would say please continue the program — go full steam ahead.”

Reach Dave Shinall at news