The Columbia disaster on the Web.

How an idea spread and grew on the Internet.
Feb. 3 2003 6:57 PM

The Columbia Shuttle Disaster: An Internet Guide

The space shuttle story we all wanted to read—or ignore, actually—was filed Saturday at 8:28 a.m. ET, when the Associated Press routinely previewed the Columbia's return by describing the imminent touchdown that would "end a successful 16-day scientific research mission that included the first Israeli astronaut." Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing.net saved and mirrored the story on his site. To a reader who knows that seven astronauts would die about a half-hour later, AP writer Marcia Dunn's unexceptional prose brims with ominousness: "The early morning fog burned off as the sun rose," she writes, and later observes that "[t]he 13 lab rats on board—part of a brain and heart study—had to face the guillotine following the flight," but the shuttle's "insects and other animals had a brighter, longer future." Dunn concludes on this note: "The next time Columbia flies will be in November, when it carries into orbit educator-astronaut Barbara Morgan, who was the backup for Challenger crew member Christa McAuliffe in 1986."

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Thirty-two minutes later, according to CNN.com's timeline, NASA lost all contact with the shuttle, and the news we had to read began to trickle in. MSNBC.com, CNN.com, the New York Times, and Space.com, among others, all built special sections for Columbia-related news. MSNBC's live video page provides one way to watch NASA-TV, and this MSNBC link contains the very latest on the story. Dallas-Forth Worth TV station WFAA is another popular destination. Weblogger Brendan Loy compared Sunday's newspaper front pages. The Poynter Institute Web site contains a similar feature on Saturday's extra editions. Slate's Columbia coverage includes a collection of editorial cartoons on the tragedy, William Saletan's analysis of President Bush's speech, and two "Explainer" columns: one on ejection seats and one on the sounds of the shuttle's destruction. Gregg Easterbrook's Time column, which argues that the shuttle program should be shut down, and his 1980 Washington Monthly article are two of the most circulated Columbia-relatedstories on the Web.

But more informal Web writing makes for just as fascinating reading. A nearly two-month long Space.com thread that tracked the shuttle's progress is, as one poster puts it, "Almost like a dark novel, full of foreboding, clues to the pending disaster." A FreeRepublic.com thread is equally sad. The "Mission Status Center" at SpaceFlightNow.com contains another minute-by-minute account of the shuttle's flight.

Bloggers tackled the story, adding links to news as it trickled in. Ober Dicta, Ranting and Roaring, and InstaPundit are among the most resource-rich. BoingBoing's Doctorow posted a photo of a Dallas road sign ("CALL POLICE TO REPORT SPACE SHUTTLE DEBRIS") and noted that Fark.com users complained of an eBay auction (quickly shut down) for "shuttle debris" at 11:46 a.m. ET. A blog called It's Getting Better posted photos of the Kennedy Space Center's astronaut memorial, "where we honor our fallen Space Explorers." Many bloggers provided animations of the shuttle's debris trail, visible on radar. Try Love the Drake, Geek.casaforge.com, or Useful Fools.

At National Review Online's "The Corner," Rod Dreher took refuge in his son's dreams of space travel and mentioned that Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon "had taken into space with him a drawing made by a child in a Nazi concentration camp. It was the child's conception of what Earth looks like from the moon. That drawing survived the Holocaust and its aftermath and was kept in Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust memorial site. Now it has perished, along with Ramon and six others, on its way back from space." (The Yad Vashem museum issued a press release stating that Ramon took with him only a copy of the drawing, not the original. The release contains a picture of the drawing and of the boy, Petr Ginz.)

Many online writers, including science-fiction novelist William Gibson, found comfort in the courage of the astronauts who streaked across the sky and "slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God." Dave Winer summed up this attitude, writing, "Yes it's sad they died. Yes. But it's also great that they lived."

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.