Only days after the 17th anniversary of the Challenger accident, the Columbia breaks up while landing after an otherwise successful two-week mission. All 7 astronauts are presumed dead. There were reports of a piece of thermal tile or insulation breaking up during lift-off and hitting one of the wings, but technicians concluded that this didn’t do significant damage – seems to have been a mistake. But then, they couldn’t stay up indefinitely, either…

All principal news sources and weblogs are tracking the news. Scott Adams is building a list here.

By a coincidence, today I started rereading “Shuttle Down” written in 1980 by G. Harry Stine under his pen name “Lee Correy”. This book has the shuttle Atlantis making an emergency landing on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Of course, in the book there’s a happy ending… Stine, who died in 1997, was active in the early US rocket experiments and was co-founder of the Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy.

BTW David Brin‘s “Earth”, one of my favorite books, also features a shuttle stranded on Rapa Nui.

Update: another coincidence: the third major disaster for NASA, the fire which killed three astronauts inside the Apollo-1 capsule (on the launch pad) happened Jan. 27, 1967. The Challenger accident was proven to be related to low launch temperatures… the Apollo accident seems to have no such connection. However, both showed a lethal combination of design failures, mechanical failures and administrative screw-ups. No doubt this happened again.