Yeager, others ponder tragedy |

Yeager, others ponder tragedy

AP Photo/Rick BowmerSusan Catlin of LaPorte City, Texas, wipes her eyes after leaving flowers in memory of the space shuttle Columbia astronauts at the entrance of Johnson Space Center Monday, Feb. 3, 2003, in Houston, Texas.
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A day after NASA’s Columbia space shuttle disintegrated on its way home, people continue to reflect on the disaster and the seven astronauts killed in the agency’s worst accident since the Challenger explosion 17 years ago.

Chuck Yeager, the Air Force test pilot who was the first to break the sound barrier more than 50 years ago, was a member of the commission that investigated the Challenger shuttle disaster in 1986.

He does not know what led to the loss of the Columbia Saturday, he said. That would be speculation, said Yeager from his home in Penn Valley.

“You don’t speculate about accidents,” he added.

Unlike the Challenger disaster, this accident will be tougher to investigate, he predicted, because there is no concrete evidence.

Yeager is nonetheless confident the space program will continue.

The shuttle is an airplane, he said. Ever since the Wright brothers, he continued, there have been airplane accidents.

“And we still fly ’em.”

Why take the risk?

“It’s duty,” Yeager answered. Test pilots risk their lives because that’s an acceptable risk to get data, he said.

“It’s sad for the whole nation,” Mardie Caldwell, a Nevada City resident and the mother of four, said Sunday. “These families…,” she said of the astronauts’ relatives, “God bless them.”

Don Loux, who keeps newspapers from the Challenger disaster, also believes the program will continue. “It’s the cost of exploration,” said Loux, 66, who lives south of Alta Sierra.

“All exploration is worth it,” he said. “Otherwise,” he said, “we would be living in ignorance.”

Tim O’Brien, who lives near Grass Valley, remembers how shocked he and his co-workers were when the Challenger exploded. This disaster, he said, is a reminder that space exploration is a very complicated business. He, too, believes in the long-term benefits of the U.S. space program.

State officials, including Gov. Gray Davis, released statements about the explosion.

Davis said he and his wife, Sharon, “are deeply saddened by the loss of the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia” in a written statement Saturday.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the seven crew members’ families and the entire NASA family.”

Newly elected Supervisor Drew Bedwell said President George Bush said it best as he spoke of the seven lost astronauts. “They’re home now and they’re in good hands … God bless them.”

Caldwell, a writer, who works early in the morning, said she was at work at her computer Saturday when she heard a strange, rumble-type noise at around 6 a.m. She wonders if that was the Columbia going over Northern California, she said. Other Northern California residents say they may have heard the sonic boom as well.

(Officials at Beale Air Force Base, where the U-2 spy plane is based, could not be reached for comment.)

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