DALLAS, Texas – Even as the nation and the world mourn for astronauts Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Michael Anderson, William McCool, and Ilan Ramon, people here and around the world seek answers to questions about the loss of the Shuttle Columbia, Feb. 1.

They came from different backgrounds, different religions, different races, and different nationalities. Our People’s Weekly World correspondent in India wrote that memorial meetings are taking place in “every niche and corner” of the sub-continent mourning the death of the first Indian woman in space. He reports that Haryana, Kalpana Chawla’s own state in India, is observing two days’ holiday to pay homage to her.

The PWW Israeli correspondent makes a similar report about mourning for Colonel Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space.

In Richardson, Texas, an ecumenical candle light gathering was organized by the Muslims of Texas for Feb. 4.

Scientists report that tiles on the bottom of the shuttle that serve as a heat shield during reentry may have been dislodged during lift off Jan. 16. Their explanations bring no more comfort than those written about faulty “O-rings” that destroyed the Challenger shuttle on January 28, 1986. There is a great deal of speculation that the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) may not have had enough money.

All government programs, except Pentagon weapons, have been scrimping since George W. Bush gave away the tax surplus and that includes cuts in the NASA budget. There have been layoffs and privatizations at NASA’s headquarters in Houston. The shuttle Columbia was built in 1979 and had flown 28 missions enduring the enormous stresses of launch and reentry over its 24 years in service.

Dr. Lloyd Jeff Dumas, author of several books about America’s weaponry and its economic effects, says that almost 47 pounds of plutonium was scheduled as cargo on the next planned flight of the Challenger shuttle before it blew up in 1986. He told this reporter, “A lethal dose of plutonium is about .007 of an ounce.” Some here have expressed concern that plutonium or other deadly poisons may have been aboard the Columbia or scheduled for future missions.

It is not hard for Texans to believe that their government would put dangerous nuclear material in the air above them. In the 1950s, a nuclear-powered bomber was created in Fort Worth. Carrying a nuclear reactor, the “Convair Crusader” flew 47 test flights into New Mexico, according to an April 18, 2002, article in the daily paper.

Dr. Dumas says, “The primary lesson of the space shuttle disaster is that even when we have thousands of highly trained people focused on making sure everything goes smoothly, we still can have disasters.”

It calls for great caution in dealing with technologies, he said, including weapons of mass destruction. “We must learn to be less arrogant about our ability to control technology. It is an entirely different matter if thousands of people die as they did in Bhopal, India, 1984, or as an aftermath of Chernobyl.” He pointed out that there have been at least 89 publicly reported major nuclear weapons accidents between 1950 and 1994.

“That’s an average of one every 6 months for 45 years,” he said. These accidents are documented in the appendix of Chapter 4 of Dumas’ book, Lethal Arrogance.

Dumas explains, “What it says to me is we’re living on borrowed time. We have better get rid of these weapons. It’s not just worrying about in Korea or Iraq, the fact is that our own weapons threaten us. We should be working as hard as we can to get rid of all weapons of mass destruction on the planet, including our own.”

He added, “We’re playing a game of chicken against human nature that we are bound to lose if we don’t get rid of these highly dangerous technological weapons.”

Aerospace workers remember that there were big layoffs after the 1986 Challenger disaster. Although military work has increased somewhat, aerospace manufacturers that depend on commercial aircraft work have been laying off workers steadily since the early 1980s.

Democratic Congressman Bill Nelson of Florida, himself an astronaut aboard the Challenger, wrote that the space program had spawned more than 1,300 technological advances – including CAT scans, kidney dialysis machines and the artificial heart. News articles emphasize that the martyred astronauts were working on experiments that might help cure cancer, lessen global warming and bring more understanding to the origins of life on our planet.

Lon Burnam, a Texas State Representative from Fort Worth and executive director of the Dallas Peace Center, issued this statement:

“Texans join the world in mourning the loss of these talented, courageous, and devoted astronauts. We greatly appreciate the sacrifices that they and their families have made, especially for the peaceful uses to which their program was put.

“At the same time, we are concerned that the Bush administration may use this occasion, as they have used other developments, to try to get the American people to accept an unjust aggression in Iraq. In the ongoing efforts to weaponize space, there have been experiments involving plutonium. We are hopeful that there were no such materials aboard the Columbia.”

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org