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long distance call
february 05, 2003
Space Shuttle Takeoff
"Technology, like art, is a soaring exercise of the human imagination."

~ - Daniel Bell

When news came of the Space Shuttle Columbia breakup on Saturday morning after its 16-day mission, I was nowhere near a radio or television but rather was at work, up to my elbows in gigabytes of data that I was transferring over to a SQL server.

It was not until many hours later that I learned about the loss of the Columbia and its crew, Rick Husband, William McCool, Ilan Ramon, David Brown, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark, and Kalpana Chawla.

It is our nature to clearly recall where we were and what we were doing when A tragedy such as this one hits. When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff in 1986, I was on my way to teach a writing course at the local university and had stopped at a TV room in the middle of campus to watch the takeoff with a room full of others like myself: people who loved to watch those majestic Shuttles, looking like blunt-nosed airplanes, lift off from the ground and disappear into the heavens. When the Challenger became airborne, we all cheered. A moment later, the room went silent.

And it's funny the things we remember at these times. Learning of the Columbia's failure a few days ago, I thought of my favorite call that ever came in to the radio show Car Talk:

CALLER: "Hello Tom and Ray, this is John from Houston."

"Hi John!"

"John, we can barely hear you."

CALLER: "Okay, I'll speak up a little bit."

"That's good!"

CALLER: "I work for the government so I can't tell you too much, but I occasionally drive this government vehicle. It's one of those Rockwell things."

"Uh huh"

CALLER: "And twice it's done a very funny thing, and I thought maybe you guys could help me with it."

"What Rockwell thing? What is it like?"

"You mean like a space ship?"

CALLER: "No. You know, a Rockwell van."

"A van?"

CALLER: "Yeah. The twice that I've driven it, I don't know why, but when I first start it up, it starts great and it accelerates really, really well. But it runs incredibly rough though, for about two minutes. This is one of those puzzlers."

"Yeah. Rough for two minutes."

CALLER: "After the first two minutes, after this really rough ride, there's kind of a jolt. Then it runs smooth, but only for about six and a half more minutes. Then at that point, the engine dies."

"The engine dies?!"

CALLER: "Yes, it stops completely."

"You know, I hate to make any assumptions..."

CALLER: "I've compared both vehicles by serial number, and both have done exactly the same thing."

"Oh, these vehicles have serial numbers?"

CALLER: "Funny how these same vehicles act the same both times."

"I hate to be suspicious..."

"I'm suspicious also."

"...but the whole - what shall I call it - the sound coming from the telephone sounds so familiar that I expect you to say..."

CALLER: "Well, I'm on the cellular."

"...that you sound like Tom Hanks saying 'Houston, we have a problem.' Where are you calling from, John?"

CALLER: "Uh just a second, lemme look. I'm about 200 miles north of Hawaii....I'm in the vehicle as we speak."

"And it's probably running real quiet right now, huh?"

CALLER: "Yeah it's running pretty quiet, I'd say. We're still going pretty fast, but it's very quiet."

"How fast are you going?"

CALLER: "Oh, about 17,500 miles an hour."

Photo: Photo courtesy of NASA, gimp-savvy.com/PHOTO-ARCHIVE
Note: The individual on the other end of the line was Mission Specialist John Grunsfeld. He was phoning in from the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Hear his historic phone call at cartalk.cars.com/About/Space.

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