The space shuttle Columbia started shedding debris as it flew over California, but these crucial first pieces may never be found, because they probably burned up in the atmosphere. To survive the descent to the ground, debris would have “to be a pretty substantial piece of the shuttle itself,” says Jim Hallock, of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. This means that the reason for the breakup of the shuttle may never be known.

Harold Gehman, who is also on the investigation committee, says about 2,600 pieces of Columbia have been “identified, catalogued, and laid out on the floor” at the Kennedy Space Flight Center in Florida. More than 1,000 additional pieces have been delivered to Kennedy but are not yet identified, and 10,000 more are being collected and processed. Despite all this, “right now we have a tiny, tiny fraction of the orbiter,” Gehman says.

Those of us who like to stay put may never understand people who risk their lives for adventure and new discoveries. We now know that courageous men and women have been exploring since prehistoric times.

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