Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster Explained (Infographic)

By Karl Tate, Infographics Artist

On Feb. 1, 2003, the shuttle Columbia was returning to Earth after a successful 16-day trip to orbit, where the crew conducted more than 80 science experiments ranging from biology to fluid physics. However, the seemingly healthy orbiter had suffered critical damage during its launch, when foam from the fuel tank’s insulation fell off and hit Columbia’s left wing, tearing a hole in it that later analysis suggested might have been as large as a dinner plate.

The damage occurred just after Columbia’s liftoff on Jan. 16, but went undetected. During re-entry, the hole in a heat-resistant reinforced carbon carbon panel on Columbia’s left wing leading edge allowed super-hot atmospheric gases into the orbiter’s wing, leading to its destruction.

Killed in the Columbia shuttle disaster were STS-107 mission commander Rick Husband and included pilot Willie McCool, mission specialists Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark and David Brown, payload commander Michael Anderson and payload specialist Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut. [Share Your Thoughts on Columbia]

Poll: Is Human Spaceflight Worth the Risk?

A subsequent inquiry by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) faulted NASA’s internal culture as much as the foam strike as causes of the shuttle disaster. The Columbia accident ultimately led then-President George W. Bush to announce plans to retire NASA’s space shuttle fleet (which was more than 20 years old at the time) once construction of the International Space Station was complete. A capsule-based spacecraft was planned to replace the shuttles. [Photos: The Columbia Space Shuttle Tragedy]

NASA’s space shuttle fleet resumed launches in July 2005, after spending more than two years developing safety improvements and repair tools and techniques to avoid a repeat of the Columbia disaster. In 2011, NASA launched the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, to complete the shuttle fleet’s role in space station construction.

Video: Remembering Columbia’s Crew – ‘In Their Own Words’

In 2012, NASA’s three remaining shuttles – Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour – were delivered to museums in Washington, D.C., Florida and California, while the test shuttle Enterprise was delivered to New York City. Under President Barack Obama, NASA was directed to rely on private spacecraft to launch Americans to the International Space Station and return them to Earth. NASA, meanwhile, is developing a new giant rocket – the Space Launch System – and the Orion space capsule for future deep-space missions to an asteroid, the moon and Mars.


Whitey on Mars

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is launched from Cape Canaveral. Photo by NASA

Elon Musk and the rise of Silicon Valley’s strange trickle-down science

Andrew Russell is Dean and Professor in the College of Arts & Sciences at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica, New York. He is the author of Open Standards and the Digital Age (2014) and co-editor of Ada’s Legacy (2015). 

Lee Vinsel is an assistant professor of science and technology studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. He is working on the book Taming the American Idol: Cars, Risks, and Regulations.

There are good reasons to worry about the future of humanity. Do we have a future, and if so, how much and what kind? For most people, it’s easier to feel these existential concerns for our species than it is to do something about them. But some are taking action. On 27 September 2016, the SpaceX founder Elon Musk made a bold, direct claim: that, in order to survive an inevitable extinction event, humans would need to ‘become a space-faring civilisation and a multi-planetary species’. Pulses raced and the media swooned. Headlines appeared in the business and technology press about Musk’s plan to save humanity. Experts and laypeople alike debated details of the rockets, spacecraft and fuel needed for Musk’s journey to Mars. The excitement was palpable, and it was evident at the press conference. During the Q&A that followed the announcement, Musk said that his goal was to inspire humanity. One audience member yelled: ‘[Musk] inspires the shit out of us!’ Another offered him a kiss.

Musk’s plan to colonise Mars is a sign of an older and recurring social problem. What happens when the rich and powerful isolate themselves from everyday concerns? Musk wants to innovate and leave Earth, rather than to take care of it, or fix it, and stay. Like so many of his peers in the innovating and disrupting classes, Musk prefers to dwell in fantasy and science fiction, safely removed from the world of here and now. Musk is a utopian, in the original Greek meaning: ‘no place’. Repulsed by the world we all share, he dreams of a place that does not exist.

His announcement parallels an earlier moment in the history of spaceflight, the Apollo missions of the 1960s to send American men to the Moon. Musk himself made the comparison, when he described the Apollo missions as ‘probably the greatest achievements of humanity’. The US space program got a major boost from Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, especially the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957. The extraordinary achievement of Sputnik pushed US scientists and political leaders to try to re-establish the country’s scientific and technological supremacy. The Apollo missions began a few years later, with President John F Kennedy’s bold declaration in 1961, and culminated with the manned Moon landing of Apollo 11 on 20 July 1969. The program captured the imagination of the nation, indeed the world, and remains an inspiring story of teamwork, wonder, technological achievement and ingenuity.

The lore of Apollo 11 as a Cold War triumph also serves to direct attention away from some of the less glorious aspects of the US at the time. Many contemporary Americans viewed the Apollo program with deep skepticism, and some were even morally critical. One such critic was the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, who became president of the Southern Christian Leadership Council after Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968.

Before his death, King had turned his political activism toward the problems of economic inequality and poverty. Abernathy stayed with this focus, and continued to organise people around addressing economic issues for black and white Americans. In July 1969, with the Apollo 11 launch, Abernathy saw an opportunity to keep economic justice on the nation’s conscience. He announced a march to Cape Canaveral in Florida, the rocket launch site. Accompanied by a few hundred people, Abernathy asked for a meeting with NASA. He wanted to win NASA’s support and technical expertise in the fight against poverty, hunger and social problems. Abernathy told NASA officials, as one of them recalled: ‘The money for the space program should be spent to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, and house the shelterless.’ To NASA’s credit, their historian and Smithsonian curator Roger Launius has documented and published on Abernathy’s protests and his dialogue with NASA.

Abernathy’s insight about the priorities of a country that could send men into space while millions of Americans lacked medical care, shelter and food found a new voice in Gil Scott-Heron. The poet and musician, who had cultivated a reputation for his socially charged spoken-word performances, debuted a new piece: ‘Whitey on the Moon’ (1970):

A rat done bit my sister Nell
(With Whitey on the Moon)
Her face and arms began to swell
(And Whitey’s on the Moon)
I can’t pay no doctor bill
(But Whitey’s on the Moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be paying still
(While Whitey’s on the Moon)

But neither Abernathy’s protest nor Scott-Heron’s anthem moved the country’s political priorities from space exploration to the provision of housing or health care. US adventures into outer space – white men in expensive, gleaming white spaceships – captivated popular attention and support in ways that urban poverty did not. Americans continued to send their tax revenues to the heavens…



How Would We Even Make First Contact with Aliens?

by Casey Chan

There are aliens out there (and if there aren’t any, it’s just more fun to believe that there are). But if they are out there, how do we find them? Once we find them, how do we contact them? And once we contact them, how do we actually communicate with them?

Wendover Productions made this captivating video that gives some ideas on how to find aliens (look at the stars) and what contacting them would mean (contact between different civilizations is historically, um, not good). But the video actually gets even more interesting when it takes a deeper look into our understanding of how our world works and how our languages work.

Figuring out how to contact aliens is a helluva brain exercise. The languages we speak on Earth all follow roughly the same rules no matter the language (noun and verb structure, word frequency etc.), but it might be silly to assume that aliens can understand our concept of language, since other animals on this planet already communicate differently (color, pheromones, etc.) And even if we could somehow figure out an alien language (like in Arrival), it’s hard to know what their words actually mean, because straight translations of foreign languages don’t always tell the full story without an understanding of their context. It’s hard to communicate without any sort of common ground.

Wendover Productions says maybe we should communicate with math, since math is universal as one plus one will always equals two. Establishing that we know math can help us reach some sort of understanding with them but there’s still just so much more to figure out. Watch the video below to find out more.


Even Physicists Find the Multiverse Faintly Disturbing


EVERYTHING THAT CAN HAPPEN, DOES: In the multiverse, possibility is actuality. Multiple-exposure photograph of ballerina Margot Fonteyn.

It’s not the immensity or inscrutability, but that it reduces physical law to happenstance.




Here’s yet another curious find on the surface of the red planet. It looks like three towers spaced equidistant from one another in the same pattern as the pyramids at Giza or the belt in the constellation Orion.

Here’s the original YouTube video from user Mundodesconocido discussing the find:

Investigating on some Mars images, we have recently found a row of huge towers located in the Martian area of Terra Meridiani. Due to their peculiar features, we believe that they have an artificial origin. In the following video, we will show you all the amazing information, evidences as well as animated 3D models that will allow you to evaluate correctly the information we propose.

And here’s another one more to the point with the specific picture from the NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor: MOC (Mars Orbiter Camera).

They do look kind of familiar in a way.




Thoughts? Something about this definitely does not look natural…

Well, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time strange things have been found on Mars, anyway.

Related Reads

Is This Picture From Mars Proof of Alien Life… And Why Did NASA Try To Edit It?

NASA’s Rover Captures Photo of Strange “Valve” on Mars

‘Mars Rat’ Spotted by Curiosity Rover Sparks Web Frenzy

Mars Rover Snaps Artificial Light Emanating From Mars: “Could Indicate There is Intelligent Life Below the Ground”

Life on Other Planets? NASA Releases Photos of Water Flowing on Mars

Is This Proof That Life Once Existed… Or Continues to Exist on Mars?

The Government of Mars Is Already Being Planned…

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A universe made for me? Physics, fine-tuning and life

We live in a Goldilocks universe – straying even slightly from our specifications paints an entirely different picture (or even no picture at all).CARLOS FERNANDEZ / GETTY IMAGES

Geraint F. Lewis’ day job involves creating synthetic universes on supercomputers. They can be overwhelmingly bizarre, unstable places. The question that compels him is: how did our universe come to be so perfectly tuned for stability and life?

For more than 400 years, physicists treated the universe like a machine, taking it apart to see how it ticks. The surprise is it turns out to have remarkably few parts: just leptons and quarks and four fundamental forces to glue them together.

But those few parts are exquisitely machined. If we tinker with their settings, even slightly, the universe as we know it would cease to exist. Science now faces the question of why the universe appears to have been “fine-tuned” to allow the appearance of complex life, a question that has some potentially uncomfortable answers.

The deeper we look at the universe, the simpler it appears to be. We know that everyday matter is built from about 100 different atoms. They, in turn, are composed of a dense nucleus of close-packed protons and neutrons, surrounded by a buzzing cloud of electrons.

Peering deeper, we find that protons and neutrons are themselves made of quarks – of which there are six distinct types. But two dominate the universe: the up-quark and the down-quark. There are also six leptons of which the electron is the most famous.

The four fundamental forces glue matter together. Two of them, the strong and the weak force, only inhabit the sub-atomic world. Everyday life is dominated by the electro-magnetic force and gravity.

These building blocks of the universe come with tight specifications and they never vary. Wherever you are in the universe, the mass of the electron, the speed of light (light is an electromagnetic wave), and the strength of the gravitational force is the same. In physics, we encounter these so-called fundamental constants so often, we barely give them a second thought. We just plug them into our equations and calculate the properties of matter and energy to our heart’s content.

As a cosmologist, I can use these immutable laws of physics to evolve synthetic universes on supercomputers, watching matter flow in the clutches of gravity, pooling into galaxies, and forming stars. Simulations such as these allow me to test ideas about the universe – particularly to try to understand the mystery of dark energy (more on this later).

This plug-and-play approach to science has also given us a masterful ability to operate in our real universe. We blasted the Rosetta spacecraft 510 million kilometres into the solar system with such pinpoint precision it could land its probe on a three-kilometre-wide speeding asteroid. We’ve designed an instrument so sensitive it could detect the gravitational waves reverberating from two black holes that collided 1.3 billion years ago. Every aspect of our modern technological world is underpinned by plug-and-play science.

While our ability to make use of the fundamental constants is impressive, they also pose a mystery. Why do they have the values they do?

What if?

So now, I invite you to join me in imagining a universe, a universe slightly different to our own. Let’s just play with one number and see what happens: the mass of the down-quark. Currently, it is set to be slightly heavier than the up-quark.

A proton is made of two light-ish up-quarks plus one of the heavy-ish down quarks. A neutron is made of two heavy-ish down-quarks plus one light-ish up-quark. Hence a neutron is a little heavier than a proton.


That heaviness has consequences. The extra mass corresponds to extra energy, making the neutron unstable. Around 15 minutes after being created, usually in a nuclear reactor, neutrons break down. They decay into a proton and spit out an electron and a neutrino. Protons, on the other hand, appear to have an infinite lifespan.

This explains why the early universe was rich in protons. A single proton plus an electron is what we know as hydrogen, the simplest atom. It dominated the early cosmos and even today, hydrogen represents 90% of all the atoms in the universe. The smaller number of surviving neutrons combined with protons, losing their energy to become stable chemical elements.

Now let’s start to play. If we start to ratchet up the mass of the down-quark, eventually something drastic takes place. Instead of the proton being the lightest member of the family, a particle made of three up-quarks usurps its position. It’s known as the Δ++. It has only been seen in the rubble of particle colliders and exists only fleetingly before decaying. But in a heavy down-quark universe, it is Δ++that is stable while the proton decays! In this alternative cosmos, the Big Bang generates a sea of Δ++ particles rather than a sea of protons. This might not seem like too much of an issue, except that this usurper carries an electric charge twice that of the proton since each up-quark carries a positive charge of two-thirds.

As a result, the Δ++ holds on to two electrons and so the simplest element behaves not like reactive hydrogen, but inert helium.

This situation is devastating for the possibility of complex life, as in a heavy down-quark universe, the simplest atoms will not join and form molecules. Such a universe is destined to be inert and sterile over its entire history. And how much would we need to increase the down-quark mass to realise such a catastrophe? More than 70 times heavier and there would be no life. While this may not seem too finely tuned, physics suggests that the down-quark could have been many trillions of times heavier. So we are actually left with the question: why does the down-quark appear so light?






Any scientist who publicly shares information that could challenge the belief systems of many will always come under public scrutiny and ridicule. But when you worked on space plasma technologies, nuclear fusion, and advanced space propulsion, and invented the Microwave Electro-Thermal plasma thruster using water propellant for space propulsion, people are probably going to take you seriously.

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