Broadcast: December 31, 2003
This is Faith Lapidus.
And this is Steve Ember with EXPLORATIONS from VOA Special English. Today we tell about some of the important space news during the past year.
The year two-thousand-three began with the terrible accident that destroyed the Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew. On Saturday morning, February first, the seven astronauts on the Space Shuttle Columbia were returning to Earth. They had performed a successful sixteen-day science flight.
At eight-fifteen that morning, the Columbia and its crew began flying down into Earth’s atmosphere. Forty-five minutes later, NASA lost all communication with Columbia.
The shuttle was flying six times faster than the speed of sound and sixty-two kilometers above the Earth. It began to break apart. People in three states reported hearing an extremely loud noise and seeing fire in the sky.
Within minutes the American space agency confirmed that something was terribly wrong. Within an hour NASA announced that the Columbia and its crew had been lost.
The seven astronauts were Shuttle Commander Rick Husband, Pilot Willie McCool, Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon and Mission Specialists Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark.
In addition to Americans, people in India and Israel had followed the flight with special interest and were now filled with sadness. Astronaut Kalpana Chawla was born in India. Ilan Ramon was the first Israeli to fly into space.
In August, the special Columbia Accident Investigation Board reported on the causes of the accident. The committee had spent seven months gathering information for the report. It said the main cause of the accident was a piece of lightweight protective material. During the launch, this material came loose from the support structure that connects the shuttle to the large rocket. The object hit the edge of Columbia’s left wing. This created a small hole in the wing’s protective material.
The report said that extremely hot air passed through the hole and into the wing when the shuttle began its flight into Earth’s atmosphere. This heat caused the wing to fail. The shuttle went out of control and broke apart.
The investigation committee also reported that NASA officials must accept much of the responsibility that led to the accident. The committee said management failed in several areas that involved safety. And it said safety must be the first concern of all NASA workers.
Soon after the report was released, NASA took steps to improve all safety requirements involved in the Space Shuttle program. In November, NASA announced it hopes to begin launching the three remaining Space Shuttles in two-thousand-five.
In September, NASA controllers sent commands to the Galileo spacecraft that caused it to fly into the atmosphere of the planet Jupiter. NASA experts say the extreme pressure of Jupiter’s atmosphere destroyed Galileo, breaking it into small pieces.
Hundreds of former Galileo project team members and their families were present at NASA’s Jet propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. They came to honor and celebrate the Galileo spacecraft and to say goodbye.
NASA officials ordered Galileo to fly into Jupiter’s atmosphere because its fuel was almost gone. Without fuel, the spacecraft would not have been able to change direction or to point its communications equipment toward Earth.
Galileo was launched from the cargo area of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in nineteen-eighty-nine. It had been one of the most successful spacecraft ever launched.
The discoveries made by Galileo began even before it reached Jupiter. It took close photographs of a comet hitting a planet. The comet was Shoemaker-Levy. The gravity of Jupiter broke apart the comet and huge pieces exploded into the planet’s atmosphere.
Galileo sent more than fourteen-thousand photographs back to Earth. These included thousands of photographs of Jupiter and its moons, Io and Europa.
The Galileo spacecraft continued its work in space for six years longer than had been planned. NASA extended its life three times. The only thing that stopped it was the end of its fuel supply.
The month of October became important in the history of the People’s Republic of China. China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, returned safely after fourteen orbits of our planet. His spacecraft landed in the Gobi Desert, in Inner Mongolia, on October sixteenth.
He was in flight for twenty-one hours. China is now the third country after Russia and the United States to send a human in orbit around the Earth. China’s first astronaut is a thirty-eight-year-old pilot in the Chinese Air Force. Yang Liwei was one of more than one-thousand air force pilots who competed to be China’s first human in space.
October was also an important month for America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The agency celebrated forty-five years of space exploration. On October first, nineteen-fifty-eight, the agency began the work of civilian research linked to space flight and aeronautics. The agency immediately started a study that would result in a human space flight project. It was later named Project Mercury. That project continued for almost five years.
Project Mercury was only a beginning. On July twentieth, nineteen-sixty-nine, NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to walk on the moon.
NASA’s major successes in forty-five years include the Hubble Space Telescope and the work on the International Space Station. It has launched more than one-hundred successful space shuttle flights. NASA has placed advanced communications satellites in space. They provide immediate television and voice communications around the world.
NASA also launched two spacecraft that are now farther into space than any other human- made objects. Those spacecraft are Voyager One and Voyager Two.
The United States launched the Voyager One and Voyager Two spacecraft in nineteen-seventy-seven. Some scientists believe Voyager One is now at the farthest edge of our solar system. It has become the first human-made object to travel past the influence of our Sun.
In the past twenty-six years, it has traveled more than thirteen-thousand-million kilometers from our Sun. NASA scientists say it is now entering an area where the Sun’s influence ends and an area between stars begins.
Voyager One and Two were the first spacecraft to fly near and send back information about the planets Jupiter, Neptune, Saturn and Uranus. They have finished their main work but continue to send back useful information about the edge of our solar system. NASA scientists say the fuel in the two Voyager spacecraft should last until the year twenty-twenty.
The planet Mars was in the news several times in the past year. The red planet came close to Earth in August -- closer than it has been in the past sixty-thousand years. This led to increased sales of telescopes and new interest in the science of astronomy.
The end of this year saw the beginning of a scientific invasion of Mars. The European Space Agency’s Mars Express with its Beagle Two lander device arrived this month.
However, earlier this month, Japanese officials reported their Nozomi Mars Orbiter failed to move into orbit above the red planet. Japan’s first planet exploration device had been traveling toward Mars for five years. Its electrical and communications equipment were damaged by solar flares.
America’s effort in Mars exploration are the vehicles called Spirit and Opportunity. They will search for evidence of water and collect and study minerals. Spirit is expected to land on Mars January third. Opportunity will land January twenty-fourth. Next month we will report about these new efforts to explore the red planet.
This program was written by Paul Thompson. It was produced by Mario Ritter. This is Faith Lapidus.
And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in Special English on the Voice of America.