No school means not taking TAKS; Test will be waiting when students return after weather closings

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 25A

The weather has done what a million hopeful students could not: stop the TAKS test.

Temporarily, at least.

Tuesday was supposed to be the debut of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills in Texas – and across much of the state, it was. But more than 100 North Texas school districts were shut down by the wintry weather, pushing the tests back to another day.

“Hopefully, the children will be resting and relaxing and be in a good position to take the test when they do come back,” said Connie Lewellen, principal of Weatherford Elementary in Plano.

In all, 1.3 million students in grades 4, 7, 9, 10 and 11 were supposed to take the first TAKS tests Tuesday. A Texas Education Agency representative said the state would not know for several days how much that number was lowered by school closings.

State policy states that schools that close on test day must give the TAKS on their first normal day back on campus, which for many schools in North Texas will be Thursday or later.

By Tuesday evening, many area school districts – including Dallas and Carrollton-Farmers Branch – were canceling Wednesday classes as the area braced for another wave of winter precipitation.

The test delay creates a host of issues for schools. Texas tests in a given subject have always been given at the same time on a single day so no students can benefit from advance knowledge of the test’s contents.

But the weather closings mean that thousands of students in other parts of the state have seen the questions and could share information with Dallas-area students.

Tuesday’s scheduled tests may be particularly vulnerable because they all feature a writing portion or essay questions – information that could easily be remembered and shared over the Internet.

“I don’t believe it’s going to be a problem,” said Larry Trejo, spokesman for the Ysleta school district in El Paso, where tests went off without a hitch Tuesday. “I don’t think many of our students are aware of what’s happened in other parts of the state today.”

Ron Dietel, assistant director of the California-based Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing, said other states have long given schools a window of time in which to administer a test, instead of one day. He said they’ve had minimal problems.

There may also be less pressure to cheat than in most years because test results this year won’t determine accountability ratings for schools or whether individual students will graduate.

Both of those high-stakes measures are being put on hold this year as Texas shifts to the new test.

At closed schools, TAKS test booklets and answer sheets are kept in secured areas to prevent anyone from sneaking a peek.

“Only the counselors and I have a key,” said Karen McDonald, principal of Clark High School in Plano.

Schools made the decision to close campuses based on student safety concerns, but for the first time there was also a complicating federal factor. The No Child Left Behind Act requires that schools have at least 95 percent of their students take the TAKS.

There are no exceptions for weather problems; if icy roads mean that 6 percent of students can’t show up for test day, a school is automatically judged as not having made “adequate yearly progress,” the term used in the new federal accountability system.

“We’ll assess the impact of weather problems, and if they’re significant, we could ask for special considerations” from federal officials, said Criss Cloudt, one of the main architects of the state’s adequate yearly progress plans.

Researchers and officials said the delay in testing probably won’t have a significant effect on student performance.

“I would not expect it to have a negative impact at all,” Ms. McDonald said. “Our kids can adjust to these sorts of things.”

Dr. Dietel said: “Generally speaking, the kids either know their content or they don’t. These other factors are usually not particularly relevant.”

It’s TAKS time for schools; State estimates say tougher test could mean many failures

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

A new hurdle to high school graduation goes up on Tuesday.

That’s the day 11th-graders will take the first Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. State estimates say almost 150,000 of them could fail the test. Starting next school year, students will be required to pass it to receive a high school diploma.

“Panic is not something we want right now,” said Beverly Weldon, the regional testing coordinator for schools in the Dallas area. “But the results will not be what we want them to be.”

In all, about 1.3 million students in grades 4, 7, 9, 10 and 11 will be taking TAKS tests Tuesday. The tests being given this week all include some form of short-answer or essay questions, which take longer to grade than the multiple-choice format to be used on other TAKS tests given in April and May.

The TAKS tests are replacing the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS, which had been in place since 1990.

Anxiety about the new, tougher tests is high across the state, but perhaps nowhere more than in high schools. By the time the exit-level TAAS tests were sent to pasture last spring, they had become an easy hurdle for most Texas sophomores to leap. Last year, the statewide passing rates on the three tests – reading, writing and math – were all over 90 percent.

“It was easy,” said Daylon Carroll, 17, a junior at Duncanville High School. “You were basically being tested on things you learned in eighth grade.”

A different story

No one has taken a real TAKS test yet, but early indicators say it will be a different story. The state, using data gathered from field tests and old TAAS performance, predicts the majority of this year’s juniors will fail at least one portion of the TAKS.

The state predicts that 44 percent of students will pass the English language arts test, which combines elements of the old reading and writing tests. According to predictions, 58 percent will pass the math test, along with 73 percent on the science test and 92 percent on the social studies test.

“Do they want us all to fail or something?” asked O.J. Castaneda, another Duncanville junior.

Teachers have been spending the year warning students about how difficult the TAKS will be and how it will differ from TAAS.

“Misspelled words in your essay are not acceptable,” teacher Caressa Love told her junior English class at Duncanville High last week. “There’s no excuse for that on the TAKS.”

Ms. Love told the class that the easy practice TAAS essays they’d gotten used to hearing about were all gone: “Remember the rodeo story? The fish story? They’re gone, retired.”

She distributed a series of student essays written for a TAKS test run from last fall and let students know how each one was graded. Essays are graded on a scale from one to four, with four being best. Students turning in an essay receiving a one automatically fail the entire TAKS test, even if they answer every other question correctly.

“You should be able to get a two in your sleep – you’re good enough to do that,” Ms. Love told her class.

Her students listened attentively, but they knew that, at some level, they could rest easy: the TAKS is meaningless for them. While they’re the first class to take the new exit-level TAKS, they also took the exit-level TAAS last year. The 10th-grade TAAS was the test they had to pass in order to graduate.

Increasing difficulty

Duncanville officials say they’re trying to motivate juniors by telling them their transcripts will indicate how they did on TAKS.

“They’re using us all as guinea pigs,” said April Wesley, one of Ms. Love’s English students. “The sophomores will adapt to it, but I make fun of them about how we got it easy.”

There’s bad news for younger students, though: The test is just going to get harder.

Because officials feared that the TAKS would be too tough, the State Board of Education voted in November to raise the passing standard in increments. For instance, this year’s 11th-graders will need to answer 25 of the 60 questions on the math exam correctly to pass. Next year, students will need 29. In 2005, the cutoff will be 33 correct answers.

Officials predict that those incremental changes could lower passing rates by 7 to 27 percentage points over the next two years.

“The kids who were just really good guessers before, they’re going to have trouble,” Ms. Love said.

Taking stock

The state board is scheduled to re-evaluate the passing standards in July, when the results of all this year’s tests are in.

Geraldine Miller, who was nominated for chairwoman of the State Board of Education last week, said that if passing rates are very low, she would support considering lowered standards.

“In my opinion, we set a very reasonable cutoff score,” she said. “But if we have 50 percent failing, I think most of us on the board would be willing to revisit the issue.”

But Ms. Miller and others say they’re optimistic that the doom-and-gloom predictions will prove to be off base.

The biggest reason: The state’s projected passing rates are based on sample TAKS tests students took in 2002. Students and teachers knew there were no consequences tied to those sample tests, so many students didn’t exactly try their hardest.

“Those are the best estimates we have,” said Ann Smisko, the state’s associate commissioner for curriculum, assessment and technology. “However, the experts also acknowledge they can’t quantify how much an effect motivation has. Some say it’s worth an extra 10 points; some say more.”

Optimists have some history to back them up. The last time Texas was in this situation was 1990, when the TAAS replaced an earlier test, the Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills. At the time, using field test data, state officials predicted abysmal passing rates for the debut of TAAS: 60 percent for the reading test, 56 percent for writing and 42 percent for math.

The reality, when the first TAAS tests were actually taken: 73 percent for reading, 74 percent for writing and 60 percent for math. On average, the state underestimated the passing rate by about 16 percentage points.

“We needed to raise the bar from TAAS,” said Sue Calvert, Duncanville’s instructional principal. “But I have faith our students are going to be fine. We’re ready.”

NBA’s Robinson builds legacy off the court in San Antonio; Spurs star is giving minorities, poor an elite education at his school

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

One in an occasional series

SAN ANTONIO – David Robinson looms large wherever he goes. Being a 7-foot-1-inch multimillionaire and one of the most famous centers in basketball history will do that to a man.

But to an 8-year-old getting a world-class education because of his generosity, he’s even bigger.

“He’s the best,” said Brogan Lozano, a third-grader at the Carver Academy, Mr. Robinson’s multimillion-dollar experiment in bringing elite private education to San Antonio’s poor east side. “He believes in us, and he’ll do anything to help us.”

The Carver Academy opened in the fall of 2001, but it’s already being hailed as a model for how to educate disadvantaged children: lots of reading, lots of personal attention and lots of money.

“The greatest satisfaction I get out of the children at the academy is seeing the excitement in their faces about learning,” Mr. Robinson said. “I think I am a teacher at heart.”

The idea for Carver dates back several years, when Mr. Robinson contemplated ways to give back to San Antonio once he retires from basketball. His initial thought was to found a private high school targeting poor and minority students. But the educators he spoke to persuaded him to aim younger.

“Young kids are so impressionable,” he said. “If you give them hope and purpose early on, they will accomplish great things.”

So the plans for a school began to take shape. It would start by offering kindergarten through second grade, adding a grade each year until reaching eighth grade; it would keep class sizes small, no more than 15 children to a room. It would have chapel every morning and have a Judeo-Christian sensibility; it would have an ambitious curriculum that taught the basics and extras such as Japanese.

“It’s nice to be doing something because you know it’s right, not because it’s what’s always been done,” said Pamela Walls, Carver’s head of school.

Carver sits in a neighborhood of broken sidewalks and weed-choked vacant lots. But it has beautiful facilities, including a technology center and pagoda-style library.

Ms. Walls said she leapt at the opportunity to build a curriculum from scratch. In each subject, school officials searched nationwide for the best methods. In reading, they decided on Spalding phonics, a decades-old method that focuses on the combinations of letter sounds that make up words.

“In a lot of schools, they’re not getting past ‘wh,’ ‘ch,’ ‘th’ and other basic sounds, ” said Cathy Cummins, a longtime Spalding proponent who trained Carver’s teachers in the method. “At Carver they get into advanced material.”

Ms. Walls also wanted to include a strong multicultural element. Students take regular classes in German, Spanish and Japanese. Students take frequent field trips and have partnerships with several area cultural and ethnic groups.

“Last weekend, the children went to an Asian festival and sang songs in Japanese,” said Melissa Ramirez, the mother of a kindergartner. “Would you get that in another school? It’s amazing.”

High operating costs

Unlike many private schools that hire uncertified, young or inexpensive teachers, all teachers at Carver are certified and earn more than $40,000.

All this comes at a steep price. Ms. Walls estimates the school spends $25,000 per pupil per year. That number is inflated because the school is paying for a full-sized administration, even though the school won’t become a full K-8 school for five more years. She estimates the total will drop to $15,000 per student or lower.

That’s not too far from what many top independent schools spend, $12,000 to $14,000, said Walker Buckalew, an independent school consultant who has advised the academy through its birthing process. But it’s far more than the typical public school in Texas, which spends about $6,200.

“It’s an expensive model,” Ms. Walls said, “but it’s designed for student success.”

Parents don’t pay that cost. The school charges $8,000 a year for tuition. However, all but one of Carver’s 70 students is on scholarship. (Everyone has to pay something, and most pay $800 a year.)

“At most private schools, the more kids you have, the more revenue you generate,” Dr. Buckalew said. “At Carver, that’s not true.”

Most of the money comes from Mr. Robinson, who has committed $9 million to the school. But the school’s financial state is far from stable. The strategic plan calls for an endowment of more than $30 million; it’s at $3.5 million.

The school has to raise about $1.5 million a year to support its operating budget, said John Webster, head of school at San Antonio Academy, where Mr. Robinson’s sons attend, and a Carver board member.

“Ordinarily, that’s not doable,” he said. “It would be undoable except for David Robinson, who has the conviction and can convince people this is worth their time and their money.”

Mr. Robinson’s background – unusual for a professional athlete – helps explain his interest in Carver. He played only one year of high school basketball, instead concentrating on academics. He scored 1320 on the SAT. The average for college-bound seniors that year was 893.

He attended the Naval Academy and became a basketball star – not least because of a growth spurt at the academy that took him from 6-foot-4 to 7-foot-1.

Since arriving in San Antonio, he has become perhaps the city’s most beloved resident – both for the success he has brought the team and for his character.

“The more you get to know David, the more you respect him,” said Mr. Webster. “He embodies everything you’d expect of an Annapolis graduate.”

Good test scores

The Carver Academy has been an unalloyed success story. When students took the Stanford 9 standardized tests in May, they scored above the national average in every category – substantially above in many. Considering the student body reflects the surrounding neighborhood – about two-thirds African-American, one-third Hispanic, almost entirely poor – the scores are extraordinary.

Carver officials acknowledge that students who don’t speak English or those with special-education needs the school can’t meet are not accepted. However, they say, the school is otherwise reflective of its community.

“To take those kids and get to the point where they’re performing at the 89th percentile nationally as kindergartners in reading, that’s real progress,” Mr. Webster said.

The children seem almost universally happy, well-behaved and learned beyond their years. “My mom says I’m really lucky to be here,” third-grader Morgan Taplin said. “I like my teacher – she gives us lots of work.”

Mr. Robinson, 37, has announced this will be his final season, and it’s traditional for a retiring superstar to be feted by each NBA city as he plays his final game in each arena. Instead, the Spurs are asking each team to donate to Carver; the Lakers and 76ers have agreed. (The Spurs have given $1 million to the school.)

“When I retire, I will have an office at the academy, and I hope to spend three to four days a week there,” he said, “mostly in the role of a cheerleader.”

Plan targets kids with weak English; Schools face action if tests show they lag behind fluent classmates

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 19A

It can be easy for children who can’t speak English to get pushed to a school’s margins. Texas’ new federal accountability system will make that a lot more difficult.

The new system, partially unveiled last week, puts unprecedented pressure on schools to look after students whose command of English is weak. A school – or even an entire district – could for the first time face serious sanctions if those students don’t perform well on tests, even if the rest of the school’s students are strong.

“Those children haven’t been the focus of the Texas system up to this point,” said Ross Weiner, policy director of the Washington-based Education Trust. “It’s really a wake-up call on how much work there is to be done with children who don’t know English.”

The reason for the attention is “adequate yearly progress,” the catchphrase introduced by the No Child Left Behind Act, last year’s federal education bill. For a school or a school district, making AYP is similar to earning the “acceptable” rating in the state’s accountability system.

For a school to make AYP, it has to hit the state’s passing rate goal on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. Last week, state officials announced their proposal for this year’s goals: 46.8 percent passing in reading and 33.4 percent passing in math.

But a school also has to hit those goals in each of six student subgroups: blacks, Hispanics, whites, poor students, special education students, and students who have trouble with English.

State officials estimate that the last group – “limited English proficient,” or LEP in education-speak – will pose the most problems.

Using last year’s scores on the TAAS reading test, state officials predict a statewide passing rate among the limited English proficient of 28.8 percent – almost 20 points below where it will need to be. That suggests that any school with an average set of non-English speakers would probably not make AYP.

The requirements will be particularly difficult for Dallas schools, where 33 percent of students are limited English proficient. That’s the highest percentage of any district in the state.

Possible sanctions

Schools missing AYP for multiple years face a variety of sanctions, including giving students the ability to transfer to other schools, having to pay for after-school private tutoring, and in some cases, closing the school.

“I think a lot of schools are going to be fine,” said Mike Strozeski, a Richardson schools official who worked on the state’s AYP definition this month. “But if you have a high population of limited English proficient kids, you’ll struggle to make AYP.”

Many non-English speakers have been tested in the Texas assessment system for years. Only about one in 10 limited English proficient students did not take the TAAS test last year, according to state data.

Welcome attention

The educators who deal with these children say they welcome the extra attention.

“We’re going to hope and pray those predictions are wrong,” said Connie Guerra, president of the Texas Association of Bilingual Educators. “But it’s like anything else: when you give a group more attention and bring them to the surface, people look at their programs and try to improve them.”

In one key respect, limited English proficient students are different from the other subgroups the accountability system looks at: They’re highly fluid.

For example, if a student enrolls in a Texas kindergarten, his race isn’t going to change over the next 12 years. If he’s white, black or Hispanic at age 5, he’ll still be white, black or Hispanic at age 18.

Students who don’t know English, however, eventually learn English. As soon as teachers do their job and move them into a standard English-language class, the students are no longer in the LEP subgroup – and schools no longer get the “credit” for their improved test scores.

Meanwhile, there’s always an influx of immigrant students, often unprepared for American education, ready to bring scores down.

“We’ve tried to address the needs of those youngsters,” said Catherine Clark, associate executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards. “But maybe we haven’t done enough. It’s going to take all kinds of additional effort to bring everybody up to the same level.”

Wait-and-see approach

Officials point out that TEA’s predictions are just predictions, based on how students did on last year’s Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the state test that is being retired. The first students won’t take a real TAKS test until this month.

But the predicted gap between English speakers and non-English speakers fits with past results. Last year, on the 10th-grade TAAS, 88 percent of students who knew English passed all three sections of the test. Only 39 percent of students who didn’t know English well did.

AYP is, in some ways, a test run for the new Texas state accountability system, which will be designed over the coming year. While few things about the plan are definite, state officials say the limited English proficient students are likely to be counted as a separate subgroup there, too.

“There will certainly be a significant push for schools to increase those passing rates right away,” said Criss Cloudt, the state’s associate commissioner for accountability reporting and research.

Report: After-school programs don’t help kids much; Bush requests 40% cut in funding; supporters say more time needed

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 12A

After-school programs – touted as a way to bring up test scores and keep children out of trouble – do little to help kids academically, according to a new federal study released Monday. They might even encourage bad behavior.

Partially as a result of the study’s findings, the Bush administration is asking Congress to cut funding for after-school programs by 40 percent.

“Thanks to this study, we found areas where we can improve,” said Eugene Hickok, U.S. undersecretary of education.

The study follows one of the biggest victories for promoters of after-school programs. In November, California voters approved a ballot initiative backed by actor Arnold Schwarzenegger that committed $550 million a year to after-school programs.

Supporters of after-school programs criticized the study, saying the programs had not had enough time to show gains.

“Instead of cutting funding for after-school programs, let’s improve the quality and cut crime,” said Sanford Newman, president of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a group that believes after-school programs can keep children out of mischief.

More than 60 mostly urban Texas school districts receive federal after-school grants, including Dallas, Irving and Fort Worth. The program, called 21st Century Community Learning Centers, began in 1994 and has grown rapidly: from $40 million in fiscal year 1998 to $1 billion in fiscal year 2002.

The study, which its authors say is the most comprehensive of its kind, examined 96 after-school programs and more than 5,000 elementary and middle school students. Among the findings:

*The programs had minimal impact on test scores and grades. Students in after-school programs had reading test scores no better than similar students who stayed away from the programs. School grades were also largely unchanged, and students were no more likely to do their homework than their peers.

*After-school programs did nothing to decrease the number of “latchkey children,” who are home alone after school. They did decrease the number of children left in the care of older siblings.

*Students in after-school programs did not report feeling safer than their peers. In fact, students in the programs were more likely to have sold or smoked marijuana than students not in programs.

Students who use the programs don’t do so often, the report said. Most attended the programs less than twice a week, which may have limited their effectiveness.

The report also showed that middle school students in the after-school programs saw slight improvements in math grades, and minority students saw larger grade improvements than whites. And after-school programs proved to be a good way to get parents involved in their children’s education. Parents were more likely to volunteer at their child’s school and help children with homework.

President Bush, in the $2.2 trillion budget submitted Monday to Congress, is asking that funding for the 21st century centers be cut from $1 billion to $600 million. That’s despite an overall $2.8 billion increase in his request for education funding, the largest dollar increase of any domestic agency.

Teachers adjusting lesson plans; Challenge will lie in helping students comprehend loss

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 7A

When Columbia fell out of the sky Saturday morning, the spirits of Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch fell with it.

The West Texas ranch has been taking in at-risk children since 1939, and Amarillo native Rick Husband volunteered to carry one of the school’s banners into space when he commanded Columbia.

“We were looking forward to having a ceremony, bringing Rick to campus, showing the boys that a national celebrity cared about them,” said Dan Adams, the school’s senior vice president for programs. “Now we have to make it into an opportunity to talk to children about values, about courage, about how you handle loss.”

The leaders at Cal Farley’s are facing the same challenge as all teachers and those who work with children: how to talk to them about tragedy.

Sadly, they have experience to draw on, from the Sept. 11 attacks to Columbia’s nearest antecedent, the Challenger explosion of 1986.

“When the Challenger accident occurred, we were called upon to change our lesson plans,” said Wendell Mohling, associate executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. “But we ended up teaching more important lessons to our students about science and life.”

Counselors and teachers said the best way to deal with the issue is to discuss it openly and sensitively.

“Get them as much straight information as possible,” said Lauren Wallach, a counselor at Dallas’ J.W. Ray Learning Center and president of the Dallas Metro Counseling Association. “Make sure they’re not perpetuating rumors and scary stories that aren’t true.”

Dr. Wallach said that teachers can’t be sure how much students of any age will know about the disaster when they arrive. Parents may have tried to shield the tragedy from their children, especially if they’re young. But shielding isn’t always effective.

“They see this stuff on TV, but no one explains it to them,” she said. “They hear things, bits and pieces, and they build up their own stories around what they hear that are twice as scary.”

Schoolteachers will have to deal with these issues Monday. But Sunday school teachers have already begun answering questions such as “Why would God let this happen?”

“God did not let this happen,” Pat McKinney said she told children Sunday at Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Dallas, where she’s the youth director. “I told them this is a time for science; we will learn from this.”

Synagogues were faced with similar questions after the tragedy.

At Living Christ Church in Dallas, Miriam Martinez said students in her Sunday school class dealt with the tragedy well – until they realized the gender of some of the astronauts.

“They didn’t realize there were two women on board,” said Mrs. Martinez. “They thought they were all men. That just kind of touched their hearts.”

Mrs. Martinez said her Sunday school class also talked about the impact on the families left behind. “Some of the kids were thinking about if their mom and dad had passed away,” she said.

Younger children may need to be told that they were not to blame for Saturday’s accident. That feeling could be worsened by Columbia’s disintegration having occurred over Texas.

“We dealt with 9-11 for a couple weeks,” she said. “But after that, there weren’t any repercussions. They figured out that no one was going to target the Cityplace building. New York was too far away. Having this happen so close might not make the impact greater, but it could last longer.”

Columbia’s disintegration is unlikely to have the same sort of broad impact on a generation of schoolchildren that the Challenger disaster did. Because it was to carry Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to go into space, Challenger’s flight was integrated into school curricula for weeks or even months before the launch.

Students learned all about the crewmembers and the wonders of space travel, and millions of them were watching the launch when Challenger exploded.

“We had all the kids in the library watching it,” said Dr. Wallach, who was a second-grade teacher in 1986. “We teachers had to check our own emotions before we could start to work with the kids. It was difficult.”

By contrast, Columbia broke apart on a Saturday morning, on a mission that had been little noticed by most students.

Dr. Mohling, a former high school science teacher in Kansas, said students’ interest in space exploration spiked after the Challenger accident 17 years ago, and he predicts a similar increase after Saturday’s event.

“It’s our challenge to make sure students understand that accidents like this happen in science, but the quest for exploration must go on,” he said.

Staff writers Tawnell D. Hobbs and Katie Menzer contributed to this report.

Re-entries are usually tranquil; Despite extreme speeds, fiery conditions outside, cockpit a place of calm

By Sherry Jacobson
Staff Writer

Page 12M

When it works the way it’s supposed to, re-entering Earth’s atmosphere is a quiet, even humbling experience for crew members aboard a U.S. space shuttle.

The long work of a shuttle mission is behind them, their objectives have been accomplished, and it’s time to go home.

Crew members are reduced to attentive passengers as computers glide the shuttle into Earth’s gravitational pull at speeds of up to 20,000 mph. Friction heats the exterior to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

But inside, all is calm and quiet.

“It’s amazing, you’re in this fireball, but the thermal protection system is keeping it nice and cool inside,” Curt Brown, a former shuttle pilot who flew six shuttle missions for NASA, said Saturday.

“You’re weightless in orbit, and as you enter the atmosphere, it starts slowing you down, the drag,” he said. “You’ll feel a little deceleration from that drag hitting the outside of the orbiter. As you hit more and more air, you’ll get more and more drag.

“It’s very comfortable, it’s not very hard to withstand or anything,” said Mr. Brown, now a first officer with American Airlines.

‘Astonishingly smooth’

Astronaut Richard J. Hieb recalls mainly the peacefulness of the descent. He flew on Discovery in 1991, the maiden voyage of Endeavour in 1992, and Columbia in 1994.

“All of my entries were very smooth. Of course, you know if something goes wrong, something terrible is going to happen,” Mr. Hieb said. “The ride itself is astonishingly smooth and very quiet.”

Looking out the back window, the astronauts can see the plume of plasma, “as you come through the atmosphere, ripping air apart,” he said. The air becomes ionized, making it visible as plasma.

During the supersonic phase of re-entry, the crew sits upright, with computers handling the guidance, navigation and control of the flight. Once the shuttle slows to subsonic speed, the commanders take over control of the flight briefly before landing.

“They’re pretty fully occupied once you get down to subsonic speeds,” said Mr. Hieb, who is still an astronaut.

The g-forces on landing are much less than those “going uphill,” or taking off, he said, when the astronauts lie on their backs.

Despite the supersonic speeds of landing – more than 18 times the speed of sound – the astronauts feel only about 1.5 to 2 g’s of force, which comes on gradually. The crew members can move comfortably in their seats, Mr. Hieb said.

However, because they’re coming out of weightlessness, crew members can feel the effects more intensely. “On one entry, I was holding a camcorder. Pretty soon, it felt like it weighed a thousand pounds,” he said.

Crewmembers engage in mental, not physical, activity during the re-entry stage in which Columbia broke apart.

“Generally what’s happening is you’re just monitoring,” said James Bagian, who was a mission specialist on Columbia for a 1991 mission. “The pilot, the commander and a mission specialist would be on the flight deck, monitoring the computer displays.”

The commander would usually retake manual control of the shuttle only for the final few minutes before landing, he said.

The rest of the shuttle personnel would be back in the midbay, essentially biding their time. “Typically, there’s not a lot for them to do at that point – just listening to radio chatter and sitting there, waiting to land,” Dr. Bagian said.

“It could have been that whatever failed, failed so abruptly that there wouldn’t have been any time for the crew to react,” he said. Columbia’s fuel cells were in the midbody, so once that part broke away from the rest of the shuttle, the flight deck would have lost all power, he said.

The crew was probably doing what they had trained to do hundreds of times in simulation.

“At that altitude, you don’t hear too much yet,” Dr. Bagian said. “You’re not in the thick part of the atmosphere. You get some air-rush noise, like the air around your car when you’re driving, but that mostly comes later.

“You’re decelerating rapidly. Imagine putting on the brakes fairly hard in your car – except the sensation doesn’t go away after a second, the way it would in a car. It keeps going for minutes. You’re pressed against the straps.”

It’s one of the sensations astronauts can’t really train for on Earth: the first minutes after a lengthy stretch of zero gravity, when bodies readjust to gravity.

NASA conditions astronauts for that moment of re-entry by tilting its flight simulators forward so astronauts hang inside their protective straps, said Dr. Bagian, who is now director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for Patient Safety.

“Forty minutes before, you were weightless. Now suddenly, things weigh something,” he said. “Your checklist sits in your lap instead of floating around.”

Turns slow things down

The shuttle nose tilts up during re-entry, but the shuttle makes S-turns on its final path to Earth to bleed off excess speed before landing. The shuttle banks as it turns, and astronauts get to see the Earth a few times before landing.

“It was a very clear day, so I’m sure they were looking down at Earth,” Dr. Bagian said of the Columbia crew. “It’s not like being in space. The day before, they were 200 miles high. Now they’re down to 40 miles high.”

Charles “Sam” Gemar, a mission specialist on a 1994 Columbia mission, said it was probably too soon in Columbia’s descent for the crew to celebrate mission’s end.

“The crew is fairly focused on monitoring,” he said. “It’s still very businesslike on the flight deck. The most critical phase of that flight is not done. It’s not over until you’re off that vehicle.

“There’s no revelry yet. You recognize the awesome responsibility you have.”

Staff writers Joshua Benton, Katie Fairbank and Aline McKenzie contributed to this report.