There's interesting speculation that an atmospheric electrical discharge might ultimately be to blame for the Columbia crash. Off-hand, I would think an electrical discharge would be unlikely, since the atmosphere at that elevation should be ionized already, and thus incapable of permitting much charge buildup, but perhaps there may be more to this than I realize. I've also read in the press about an Air Force picture showing damage to the left wing (from Kirtland AFB, alternatively said to be a fuzzy amateur picture, or a high-quality detailed picture), and an interesting array of microphones at Big Bend operated by SMU that captured at least ten explosions from the Shuttle as it disintegrated over Texas.
After seeing the gripping Shreveport weather radar loops on the Web from Feb. 1st, showing shuttle debris passing over eastern Texas and western Louisiana, it occurred to me that (after a suitable time lag permitting debris to fall from the upper atmosphere) weather radar might have picked up falling tiles from the Shuttle even as far west as California, providing clues so that even the casual investigator (namely, me) could go off looking for them. Alas, on the Web, National Climatic Data Center seems to provide only coarse radar loops. Also, the loops are archived monthly, and since the accident happened on the first of the month, they may not be available till March 1st. Still, it might provide an interesting diversion on weekends, looking for this stuff. Then, of course, people all over CA, AZ, and NM are now finding all sorts of weird, inexplicable stuff in their yards and driveways (e.g., investigators in Shreveport, LA found - egg yolk! - on a porch there), which would not have attracted any attention prior to this time.
Perhaps we are coming to a needed rethinking of the Shuttle program.....
In order for people to retain access to space, much cheaper and safer spacecraft need to be available (indeed, that was the inspiration for the Shuttle program to begin with). That means new up-to-date spacecraft development, preferably of smaller, people-oriented shuttles, featuring the latest advances in materials and computer sciences, with the heavy lifting done instead by ferry spacecraft, and with the science missions done with various, tailored, unmanned missions. If the budget isn't to be increased dramatically (or even if it is), that means the Shuttle program needs to be shut down, one way or another (not necessarily abruptly). Years ago, the Shuttle program cannibalized the planetary science missions, which (still) are among the few doing genuine, ground-breaking science (together with the Hubble, COBE, etc.). Now, it looks like safety concerns and budget considerations might lead the Shuttle to cannibalize itself as well.
Given its costs, space flight is heavily dependent on political sponsorship, but no President since Johnson has given a hoot about it. What we really need is someone with vision at the top, issuing directives. But G.W. Bush doesn't seem focused on the problem either, so we may have a confused era here, where chaos reigns. But in chaos lies opportunity. Appropriate goals - appropriate technology. If I were King, I'd:
1.) Develop smaller shuttles, powered by solid-fuel boosters;
2.) go for a lunar colony;
3.) begin assembling a spinning space station (similar to visionary 50's-era sci-fi models) for a journey to land on Mars and return safely;
4.) send a plethora of planetary missions out, to places like Europa; and,
5.) send more telescopes into space.
It would be very costly, but it would serve as a better inspiration than today's NASA.
Years ago, I remember reading an article (wish I knew where it was now) concerning NASA's failure to get Richard Nixon to commit to a more ambitious shuttle program in the early 70's, getting instead his commitment to the cheaper, hybrid cargo carrier-manned spaceplane vehicle we have now. NASA chose to proceed with the more disappointing combo vehicle because of their post-Apollo fear of losing all manned space efforts altogether, even though they had concerns about the vehicle's safety even then. So, NASA took a risk, perhaps an avoidable risk, so as to keep in the game. It's not just astronauts voyaging into the unknown - contractors and bureaucrats too are at risk.