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The delicate, risky art of shuttle flight

June 25, 2003|Scott Sandell | Times Staff Writer

The Feb. 1 breakup of the space shuttle Columbia was a reminder that manned spaceflight is a delicate, dangerous calculus of technology and humanity. Tonight at 9, the Discovery Channel will premiere two documentaries that explore both sides of the equation.

The first, "Falling From Space: The Challenge of Re-Entry," focuses on the engineering perils of returning the shuttle safely to Earth. The topics range from the physics of our atmosphere to the often astounding lengths to which designers went in building the craft. One example: Did you know the basic ingredient for the shuttle's fragile heat-shielding tiles is a type of sand found only in Brazil?

At times, "Re-Entry" seems a bit generic, and it isn't really until the end of the hour that the specifics of the Columbia disaster come together. In addition, the film (or at least the review copy) failed to incorporate the most recent findings by investigators, which made it feel slightly incomplete.

Still, its interviews, computer animation and video segments serve as a good primer in how reentry works. And they never bore, which cannot always be said of documentaries that expound on complex scientific concepts.

The second documentary, "Columbia's Final Mission: 16 Days," takes a broader view of Columbia's last flight. Much of it was filmed by the seven astronauts who died in the accident; it's particularly haunting to see them at work and play, not knowing that the mission was fatally flawed.

"16 Days" discusses the experiments they conducted and how the results might improve our world. But it also presents small biographies of each crew member and memories from mission controllers and scientists that reveal the astronauts' personalities.

It's a fitting tribute to see that their legacy will live on through the fruits of their labor -- and the power of the human touch.

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