Thinking the unthinkable

Accidents happen. Risks abound. The unthinkable occurs with appalling regularity.Tangible testimony to these abstractions now lies in charred pieces strewn between Texas and Louisiana. On Feb. 1, 2003, something went tragically wrong during a marvelous operation that repetition had turned routine. Something made the space orbiter Columbia break apart as it reentered the atmosphere after a 16-day mission and crash, killing seven astronauts.Before the Columbia disaster, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had safely launched and landed space shuttles 111 times. Its only prior shuttle failure was the 1986 explosion on takeoff of the Challenger, which also killed seven.Obvious r...

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