Locus Online News: February 2003: Columbia news
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Saturday 15 February 2003

More Columbia Commentary

  • Edge has collected essays on Columbia by scientists and science writers, including Gregory Benford...
    A Mars expedition would be the grandest exploit open to the the 21st Century. It would take about 2.5 years, every day closely monitored by a huge Earthside audience and fraught with peril.

    This is what we should be doing. Such an adventure would resonate with a world beset by wars and woes. It has a grandeur appropriate to the advanced nations, who should do it together.

    The first step will be getting away from the poor, clunky shuttle, a beast designed 30 years ago and visibly failing now. How we respond to the challenge of this failure will tell the tale for decades to come, and may become a marking metaphor for the entire century.
    ...and Mapping Mars author Oliver Morton.
    ...So if I was President Bush I would reaffirm my commitment to space by mothballing the last three shuttles and the station (after finding the best way to boost it into a century-stable orbit). I'd then use the annual $6 billion thus saved for a serious solar-system exploration programme. Under that heading I would put: the design of a heavy lift vehicle in the Energia-plus/Saturn V class, capable of launching very large payloads to earth orbit and substantial ones to Mars; a production facility capable of producing those rockets at a rate of two or so a year; development work with others (eg Europe, Russia, India, Japan) on vehicles that would use that capacity for Mars missions along the lines of those that Robert Zubrin has proposed, though not necessarily with exactly that profile; and safe space nuclear power and advanced ion engines to make use of that power, initially to do some impressive robot missions but with planned growth to allow eventual use for manned missions.
  • Jerusalem Report staff artist Avi Katz, who designed a series of Israeli stamps commemorating SF in Israel in 2000, has an essay, He Dared to Live Our Dreams, in the current issue, about Ilan Ramon.
    As a boy, I used to draw endlessly, and spacemen and spaceships were favorite themes. I sometimes drew crashed vessels, burnt and broken starships on distant worlds. I suppose the fragility of the thin metal shell of the craft in comparison to the infinity of space is part of the daunting enormity of the vision of space travel, and the possibility of disaster makes us appreciate the daring and courage of the pioneers. Disasters will always be part of space travel, as shipwrecks are part of the history and romance of seafaring.

    Along with the entire nation, we Israeli science-fiction enthusiasts mourn Ilan Ramon. He was one of our own, one who ared our dreams and dared to live them. We know he was the first, and many more will follow, because the future is up there. And the future, as always, is just beginning.
  • USA Today's coverage quotes Dave Barry's and Neil Gaiman's weblogs.

Wednesday 12 February 2003

Columbia's Final Descent

The San Antonio Express-News posted this article about SFFH writers Ardath Mayhar and Joe R. Lansdale, who live in central Texas, and how they reacted that Saturday morning to the sound of Columbia.

Mayhar, 73, is one of two pulp-and-popular fiction novelists in the woodland village of Chireno near Nacogdoches, and was in the path of debris from the Columbia.

Mayhar had gone to the front door of her isolated home to look at an outdoor thermometer when "the house shook, the ground shook and the trees shook," she says.
Joe Landsdale, who with 20 titles to his credit is the second-most-published novelist in rural Nacogdoches County, didn't find life transformed by the Columbia crash, either, even though his wife, Karen, found a piece of the shuttle in their yard, about 5 miles east of Nacogdoches on the Chireno road.

"There was this boom," says Joe, a Gladewater native. "I thought it was going to throw me out of bed."

Reactions to Columbia

Locus Online can't begin to compile all the commentary and reactions to the Columbia shuttle disaster in the mainstream press, but we will note for its SF allusions this New York Times essay by Amy Harmon, Reviving Romance With Space, Even as 'Space Age' Fades.

In 1962, as America was gearing up for a space race against the Russians, the iconoclastic science fiction writer J. G. Ballard published "Which Way to Inner Space?," a manifesto railing against his field's preoccupation with exotic space travel and calling on popular imagination to focus instead on Earth, human consciousness and biology.

Like many good science fiction writers, Mr. Ballard may have been ahead of his time. But the explosion of the Columbia shuttle last week has prompted questions about space exploration to appear in the most unlikely places.

Even in a space enthusiasts' stronghold like the Web site, the message boards this week reflect an unusual degree of doubt. "What are the benefits of space travel?" one of the site's participants asked plaintively. "Will someone please remind me?"
Science fiction itself has changed. From the highly realistic, almost evangelical science fiction about rockets and space travel in the 1950's, with movies like "Destination Moon" and stories by authors like Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, the genre came in the 1980's to be dominated by galaxies far, far away in distant futures that bore little resemblance to our world. In 1995, Disney World's reading of the cultural barometer prompted the amusement park to replace its "Mission to Mars" attraction with "Extra Terrorestrial Alien Encounter."

"It's as if some kind of imaginative spark about space travel just died out," said Dr. Rob Latham, an editor of science fiction studies and an associate professor of American studies at the University of Iowa.

Today's blockbuster science fiction movies tend to be either about alien monsters or cybernetic realities.


Here is a selection of reactions from within the SFFH community.

  • Science Fiction Weekly: Scott Edelman's editorial.
    I was out early that morning, and when I turned on my car radio and heard a commentator speaking about a space-shuttle accident, I assumed that I was not listening to a live broadcast, but rather to a program commemorating the Challenger accident which had occurred 17 years before on Jan. 28, 1986. What else could it be but that the local news station was merely airing a retrospective?
  • Strange Horizons: Jed Hartman's editorial.
    In the 1960s, Star Trek brought to the world a vision of a multicultural future in space. It could be argued from our perspective thirty-plus years later that some of the casting looks like tokenism and caricature; nonetheless, showing a Japanese man, a Russian man, and an African woman, as well as a half-alien man and a Scottish man, working alongside the white American men was eye-opening. Whoopi Goldberg has talked about being inspired as a girl to believe that she could do anything she wanted to, by seeing Nichelle Nichols on TV playing Uhura. The fictional portrayal of this multicultural crew had a strong effect on the real world: it gave viewers something to hope for, something to strive for.

    And looking at the biographies and photos of the crew of the Columbia, it looks to me like we've come a long way. Because this vision of an African-American man, an Indian woman, a white American woman, and an Israeli man working alongside their white male American colleagues -- this isn't a science-fiction TV series, this is real life.
  • Chris Lawson, in his 'blog Frankenstein Journal (scroll down to 2 Feb 2003):
    Two nights ago, I went out into my back yard and saw space shuttle Columbia cut across the sky. With a magnitude of -1.5, it was about as bright as satellite sightings get. It was close enough to be more than a point -- more like a planet than a twinkling star, and it looked like a glowing ember from the dull red sunlight it reflected. I meant to go out again last night. There was another good transit to watch, but I didn't remember until five minutes too late and Columbia had passed by. It was on one of its last orbits before re-entry.
  • William Gibson, Columbia Sadness:
    Broken up and vanished. In the sky over Nacogdoches County. And Iím sad all the way back to the little boy with his stiff black book and his Bonestell rockets.

    But Willy was right, and nobody ever said it would be risk-free.

    If it were, it wouldnít be glorious.

    And itís only with these losses that we best know that it really is.
  • Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Making Light, who quotes a comment by John M. Ford.
    I am following this on NASA TV, and the language has a surreal detachment, even by the usual standard; this is a "contingency during descent." "All information and data relevant to the descent is being secured by flight controllers."


    The oddest quality may be that, unlike the typical "breaking story," the crisis is now over. There are no survivors, not at Mach 17. There is no suspense. There is nothing significant to report and it is very unlikely that there will be for a long time, after the planetary skid mark is swept up and the bits sieved for meaning, all the video images scrutinized for the dark spot, the scar shadow, that might be a sign.

    Already I miss Richard Feynman.
Locus Online will amend this page with further news and commentary about Columbia; please send links to online articles and comments to

Saturday 8 February 2003


The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) has released a statement expressing condolences over the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia, and offering its support for the continued exploration of space. The text of the statement is posted here, with a list of over 300 member signers. Public support for the statement can be registered here.


Robert J. Sawyer was involved in an unpleasant experience with a reporter from Canadian cable news channel CBC Newsworld who phoned him on the morning of February 1st. The reporter, anchorperson Jennifer Gates, tried to tie the loss of the shuttle to American "arrogance" in matters of foreign policy, particularly with regard to the Middle East, and though Sawyer emphatically denied any such factor, Gates later spoke as if he had confirmed her supposition. Sawyer's account is posted on his website, while correspondence between him and the CBC have been reported by the weblog The Ghost of a Flea.

January News

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