America's space program suffered a grim setback on Feb. 1 when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated in mid-air just moments before its scheduled landing, raining charred debris across Texas and Louisiana. All seven crewmembers were killed. A months-long investigation blamed faulty insulating foam that damaged the shuttle's wing during takeoff, and the entire program was grounded until at least the middle of 2004.
After more than nine months, a bizarre kidnapping case reached an unexpectedly happy conclusion when 15-year-old Elizabeth Smart was returned safely to her parents on March 12. Her abductor, Brian David Mitchell, took the girl from a bedroom she shared with her sister, reportedly driven by his desire to restore earlier Mormon teachings on polygamy.
After days at sea as one of the strongest storms in history, Hurricane Isabel swept ashore near Cape Hatteras, N.C., on Sept. 18, causing widespread damage even as she slipped to a Category 2. Throughout large swaths of central Virginia, almost 100 percent of homes were left without power, and entire city blocks in Baltimore found themselves under six feet of water. Some two dozen deaths were blamed on the storm, and insurance claims were expected to top $1 billion.
High winds and dry weather contributed to one of the worst-ever fire seasons in California. During more than a week in late October, a series of fires scorched approximately 750,000 acres stretching from Los Angeles to San Diego. Some 3,600 homes were destroyed and two dozen lives were lost in a disaster that was estimated to cost more than $2 billion.
Duct and cover
A looming conflict thousands of miles away took its toll on the homeland as the terrorism threat level was raised to Code Orange in February-the highest state of alert since 9/11. Anti-aircraft missiles were rolled out in Washington, D.C., visitors to Disneyland endured careful searches, and hardware stores sold out of plastic sheeting and duct tape for sealing doors and windows against chemical or biological agents. Though the war came and went without incident at home, periodic warnings throughout the year had officials nervously eyeing tanker trucks, cargo planes, and even the ductwork of high-rise office buildings.
Strange ... but guilty?
After years of rumor, innuendo, and lawsuits, Michael Jackson was finally arrested on Nov. 20 and booked on suspicion of molestation. The case involves a 12-year-old boy who claimed the erstwhile King of Pop molested him at the singer's Neverland Ranch. Still, Mr. Jackson's guilt was far from certain: The alleged victim's family has a history of filing lawsuits, and the boy himself told investigators in February that the singer had done nothing improper.
The night the lights went out
The biggest blackout in U.S. history raised fears of al-Qaeda and plunged some 50 million people into darkness on Aug. 14. The good news: It wasn't terrorism. Overheated transmission lines sent a surge of power cascading across the grid, overwhelming the system from Detroit to Manhattan. The bad news: No one seems to know just how to fix the problem-or when it might happen again.
Playing with fire
A small-time band found itself in a big-time scandal after fireworks used in their stage show touched off an inferno that killed 100 at a club in Rhode Island. Lawyers for '80s band Great White insisted the act had received permission for the pyrotechnics, but club owners said the fireworks came as a surprise. Prosecutors found plenty of blame to go around: On Dec. 9, the two club owners, along with the band's manager, were each charged with 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
Red-faced gray lady
The venerable New York Times found its credibility on the line when Jayson Blair, one of its star reporters, resigned under pressure on May 1, charged with plagiarizing or fabricating as many as three dozen stories. Two top editors lost their jobs over the scandal, and an 11-week investigation found that management's focus on newsroom diversity may have helped shield Mr. Blair from the usual scrutiny.
President Bush's faith-based initiative made slow administrative progress during 2003 as guidelines that would result in fairer treatment of evangelical and other theologically conservative groups developed. Nevertheless, a teapot tempest toward the end of the year showed how the initiative, which originally emphasized bringing out more volunteers, was now being viewed as dispersing more dollars.
The winds began to howl when Jim Towey, director of the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, answered an online chat question about whether pagan groups "should be given the same considerations as any other group" applying for government funds. He responded, "I haven't run into a pagan faith-based group yet, much less a pagan group that cares for the poor.... Helping the poor is tough work, and only those with loving hearts seem drawn to it."
But pagan groups started bombarding Mr. Towey and newspapers with examples of what they considered help, and The Washington Post dutifully gave them a press megaphone: "Pagan Pride groups have collected 74,000 pounds of food and donated $51,000.... A West Los Angeles pagan community of about 1,000 people ... collects food and personal-care items for the homeless."
The year ended with faith-based initiative leaders needing to do a better job of distinguishing compassionate conservatism, which is challenging, personal, and generally religious, from "compassionate liberalism," which emphasizes material redistribution. Another basic problem also remained: Just as Jewish groups are unhappy about their tax funds potentially going to Christian groups, so many Christians do not want their tax funds potentially going to support overt paganism (as opposed to the usual, more subtle variety).