The tragic disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia as it returned to Earth sparked shock waves worldwide, and prompted renewed questions over the value and risks of manned space travel — and of America’s fragile and aging Space Shuttle fleet. TIME’s cover story just after the disaster paid apt tribute to the seven crew members who perished that day:
It’s strange how we glimpse the impossible only when it fails. How can this spacecraft exist, one that leaves the earth like a ballistic missile, a fragile plane strapped to half a million gallons of explosive fuel, but two weeks later returns as a glider, swooping in wide S turns back to earth under nature’s power alone? The engineers who build these things know that so much has to work so perfectly and with such precise timing that we should expect them to fail catastrophically every 100 missions or so. That’s why NASA must be America’s most optimistic government agency, that it can keep muscling forward in the face of such odds.