Students see streak made by Columbia

An extraordinary and later disturbing sight caused some UW-Eau Claire students to turn their attention to the sky Saturday morning.

While in Huntsville, Texas, last weekend for the Annual College Dance Festival, some members of the Eau Claire Concert Dance Company witnessed the space shuttle Columbia disintegrate as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere.

Columbia broke up about 40 miles above the Earth at Mach 18, the hottest portion of the flight when temperatures on the shuttle reach 3,000 degrees from atmospheric friction. All seven astronauts aboard died.

“It looked like a meteor shower or a shooting star,” junior Caitlin Musson said. “We were all excited about it because it was kind of cool. None of us knew what it was.”

Musson is from Racine, which is also the hometown of Columbia astronaut Laurel Clark. She attended the same high school as Musson.

About eight of the 27 students who traveled to Texas witnessed the breakup of Columbia while riding in a van to Sam Houston State University. Initially, they noticed one bright streak through the sky.

The streak then “split up into other pieces,” junior Sara Looby said. “It was sparkly and brilliant. We thought it was a meteor shower.”

The wreckage was brighter than fireworks, even in morning sunlight, she said.

Eau Claire dance professor Toni Poll-Sorensen went along on the trip as an adviser. She was driving when the wreckage streaked across the horizon.

“I thought it was the biggest, fastest airplane I’d ever seen,” she said. “We remarked how beautiful it was.”

She said she watched as the shuttle broke into two and finally five pieces.

Junior Amy Bassett was in the back of the van. She said, “by the time I saw it, I saw three pieces falling and disintegrating.”

The students found out two hours later what actually had occurred.

“Right now, in a way, I wish I hadn’t seen it,” Bassett said. “In the future, it’s something I’m going to be able to tell people and say, ‘I saw that.’ It’s interesting, yet sickening.”

After the dance team was told of the tragedy, senior Anna-Lisa Bjorklund said in an e-mail, its members became very quiet. “I couldn’t believe that we were actually there to witness it.”

“I started asking questions and inquiring for more details,” she said, “but nobody really had any more information to offer us except what we already knew — that the space shuttle had blown up.”

The debris from the shuttle spread over a large portion of Texas and recent reports place debris possibly as far west as California and Arizona.

Many investigations already are in full progress, but NASA said its investigation is focusing on a piece of foam insulation on an external fuel tank that dislodged and struck the underside of the shuttle’s left wing 80 seconds after liftoff.

Temperatures on the left wing rose much faster than the right on re-entry. The shuttle was pitching left, an action the flight computer fought to compensate for moments before the last contact with Columbia was made.

A large memorial for the astronauts took place Tuesday in Houston with thousands of people in attendance.

— The Associated Press contributed to this story