Columbia: Had They Only Looked

I guess those of a superstitious bent could say, “I told you so.”

All the signs were there. Columbia’s STS–107 launch was the 113th Space Shuttle mission. It had slipped into the second half of January, the same general time period as its doomed predecessors, Challenger and Apollo 1.

But there was another sign. It was much more ominous and much less obvious. There had been eighty-seven relatively successful Space Shuttle missions flown since the Challenger accident January 28, 1986, and once again, an aura of what might best be called arrogant complacency pervaded the ranks of the agency’s senior management. As was the case before Challenger, they had become less tolerant of dissenting views when they believed they had valid data to support their position.

Shedding foam from the Space Shuttles’ external fuel tanks had been a major concern during the early missions, but by now it had become a fact of life. It was considered an acceptable risk and more of a post-flight maintenance problem than a threat to flight safety. Space Shuttle managers had come to believe that it was somewhat like hitting your car bumper with the cover of your Styrofoam cooler.

Columbia’s was the first mission to fly in three years that did not have the International Space Station as its destination. The station, of course, can serve as a safe haven for the crew of a crippled ship. The Shuttle’s mission was a planned science flight with more than eighty experiments during its sixteen days in orbit, an ambitious around-the-clock agenda with more than seventy scientists involved worldwide. On board were commander Rick Husband; pilot Willie McCool; mission specialists Dave Brown, India-born Kalpana Chawla, Mike Anderson, and Laurel Clark; and Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon. Husband, Anderson, and Chawla had flown once before.

Following an almost flawless countdown, America’s oldest and most storied Space Shuttle rumbled off its launch pad at 10:39 A.M. Eastern time on January 16, 2003. Weather was ideal with a temperature of 65 degrees Fahrenheit, calm winds, and scattered clouds at four thousand feet.

The launch appeared to be normal to us at the press site, and these observations were backed up by early reports from Mission Control. But ground cameras later revealed that 81.7 seconds into the flight, at an altitude of 65,000 feet, one large piece and at least two smaller pieces of insulating foam broke away from the external tank’s left bipod ramp, one of the connection points between Columbia and the tank.

Additional photographic analysis the next day revealed that the larger piece, traveling at more than five hundred miles per hour, struck Columbia’s left wing’s leading edge. The chunk had an estimated weight of 1.67 pounds and was one by two feet in size. It was the seventh known time in Space Shuttle history that foam had fallen from the left bipod ramp—but this time it was fatal, because unknown to Columbia’s astronauts or anyone on the ground, the collision had caused a six-inch breach in the reinforced carbon-carbon panel in the middle leading edge of the left wing.

Once in orbit, Columbia’s crew went to work on their two shifts while on the ground, the Mission Management Team, with the responsibility for resolving outstanding problems outside the scope of flight directors in Mission Control, gave Columbia’s flight cursory notice. Linda Ham, an up-and-coming former flight director who was the Space Shuttle Program integration manager at the Johnson Space Center near Houston, served as chairwoman.

Because of its size, the strike was considered to be “out of family,” and a debris assessment team was established to analyze the problem. They relied on a mathematical modeling tool called “Crater,” developed by the Boeing Corporation to predict the penetration depth of debris impact, but the system was stretched beyond its designed limits because of the large size of this particular piece of debris. By flight day nine, after extensive analysis, the team came to the conclusion that there was no flight safety risk, and reported their results to the Mission Management Team.

During that time, three requests were made to get Department of Defense spy-satellite enhanced imagery of the wing. Two of the requests were turned down, and the third never came to the attention of the Mission Management Team because of a communication breakdown. There were numerous e-mail exchanges about the foam strike between concerned structural engineers at NASA’s Langley and Johnson centers, but their concerns never reached the proper channels. To compound the situation, three days before the mission was to conclude, former astronaut and then NASA associate administrator Bill Readdy accepted a Defense Department offer to provide spy-satellite coverage, but because the Mission Management Team had concluded that this was not a safety-of-flight issue, the imagery was to be gathered only on a low-priority non-interference basis. No imagery was ever taken.

The Mission Management Team brushed aside further discussions of the foam. The Columbia Investigation Board also noted that the management team met only five times during the course of the mission, not every day as required by Shuttle program rules.

Ironically, on flight day eight of the mission, Mission Control sent up a message to Rick Husband and Willie McCool informing Columbia’s pilots about the foam hit on the left wing. The message stated there was no concern for reinforced carbon-carbon or tile damage, and because the phenomenon had been seen before, there was “absolutely no concern for reentry.” It was a heads-up for the crew in case the media asked about the incident during an upcoming in-flight news conference.

On the morning of that fateful Saturday, the first day of February 2003, the Columbia crew, justifiably proud of its accomplishments over the past fifteen days, prepared its ship for the landing at its Florida launch site.

Touchdown was set for 9:16 A.M. Eastern time, and I took my place before my microphone. On the main NBC network, Weekend Today hosts David Bloom and Soledad O’Brien were moving through their show with little or no interest in Columbia’s landing. After eighty-seven post-Challenger touchdowns without a hitch, this landing was routine. NBC News’s plan was for the Today Show to cut in with a brief video of the landing while I did a play-by-play of Columbia’s return for MSNBC’s Saturday-morning viewers.

On Columbia’s 255th trip around Earth in sixteen days, commander Rick Husband was given the “go” to put on his brakes and leave orbit. The senior pilot was flying Columbia backward and tails-up when he ignited the ship’s two orbiting maneuvering rockets. Twelve thousand pounds of thrust pounded against Columbia’s forward speed for two minutes and thirty-eight seconds. The burn was “right on the nose,” and it slowed the big Shuttle’s forward motion just enough to drop it out of orbit and onto an hour-long flight path to its Florida landing site.

Entry interface came over the Pacific Ocean at an altitude of 400,000 feet. This is when the spacecraft skips along the upper surface of the planet’s air, much like a stone skipping across a lake. The first effects of reentry heat can be felt when the Shuttle penetrates the atmosphere. Its surface grows hotter and hotter as it ploughs deeper and deeper into the thickening air. The plasma sheath around the Shuttle is hotter than the molten lava pouring from Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano.

In physics, plasma is a highly ionized gas containing an approximately equal number of positive ions and electrons. The super-hot plasma is the product of friction created by a fast-moving object through air. It first appeared to Columbia’s astronauts as a faint salmon glow. Nearing the California coast, Columbia was dropping like a rock. Its nose-up attitude was focusing the plasma’s super heat on its reinforced carbon-carbon panels covering the Shuttle’s nose and the leading edges of it wings.

“This is amazing,” Willie McCool said. “It’s really getting, uh, fairly bright out there,” he added, staring at the growing intensity of the outside fire.

Rick Husband grinned. It wasn’t his first reentry. He knew this was only the beginning of the blast furnace that was yet to come. “Yeah, you definitely don’t want to be outside now,” he smiled at his pilot.

Moments later, Columbia crossed the California coast at 8:53 A.M. Eastern time, twenty-three minutes from its Florida touchdown. Below, two news photographers had set up their cameras to photograph the returning Space Shuttle—a man-made shooting star leaving a long plume of fiery plasma trailing in its wake.

But instead of seeing a perfect plasma trail as expected, the photographers saw a big red flare shoot from underneath Columbia.

The two stared at one another. Was that thing coming apart?

Inside Mission Control the reentry appeared normal until 8:54:24 A.M. Eastern time, when the Maintenance, Mechanical and Crew Systems officer informed entry flight director LeRoy Cain that four hydraulic sensors in the left wing were indicating “off-scale low.” At 8:59:15 A.M., the same crew systems officer reported that pressure readings in both left landing-gear tires had been lost.

Suddenly, Columbia’s commander, Rick Husband, was calling. He hadn’t talked to Mission Control since entering Earth’s atmosphere fifteen minutes earlier.

“And, uh, Hou…” he began, only for his transmission to be lost in the middle of the word “Houston.” This was not unusual. Such communications dropouts happen frequently during reentry when the Shuttle is banking and rolling as planned. Its huge tail assembly blocks signals between itself and the TDRS satellite 22,300 miles above the western Pacific. It is the TDRS satellite network that relays transmissions between the Shuttles and Mission Control.

LeRoy Cain told CapCom Charles Hobaugh to alert the crew about the sensors and tire-pressure losses.

Husband attempted to respond to Hobaugh with, “Roger, uh, buh—” Those were the last words from Columbia at 8:59:32 A.M. Eastern time as the storied Space Shuttle sped over north central Texas at an altitude of slightly less than forty miles.

What followed was inevitable. The super-hot plasma sped freely through the six-inch hold into Columbia’s left wing, melting the ship’s inner structure. America’s first Space Shuttle was instantly ripped into more than 84,000 pieces that would be recovered later, and its dedicated crew of seven, without a hint of their doom, died so swiftly they blessedly never finished their final thought.

I sat straight up in my chair, pulled my microphone closer, and told MSNBC control we should go on the air NOW!

The MSNBC anchor came to me and no sooner than I was reporting, “Mission Control has lost communications with the Space Shuttle Columbia,” I heard a strange click on my interrupted feedback line from New York. The voice of David Bloom was instantly in my ear along with Soledad O’Brien’s, and we were on all NBC networks with live coverage.

At the Shuttle landing strip itself, New York Times reporter and friend Stefano Coledan told me, “The first hint was the silence.” The countdown clock ticked down to touchdown time. No sonic boom rolled through the Florida swamps. Something was desperately wrong.

I brought our viewers up to date, and Mission Control kept calling Columbia, and, of course, the Space Shuttle crew did not answer, and soon one of our affiliate stations in Texas had video of the remains of Columbia streaking across the Lone Star state.

David Bloom, who would lose his own life a little more than two months later during the Iraqi invasion, came to me, and as soon as I saw the video I knew: “It’s Challenger all over again, David,” I said. “We’ve now lost Columbia.”

By mid-afternoon, NBC had flown Tom Brokaw to the Cape from his vacation in the Virgin Islands, and we were well into our coverage of the loss of a second Space Shuttle and its crew.

In Texas, a massive search-and-recovery undertaking involving more than 25,000 people from 270 different federal, state, and town emergency agencies was underway. In all, the searchers found over 84,000 individual pieces of Columbia from Fort Worth, Texas, to Fort Pork, Louisiana, an area the size of Connecticut covering 2.3 million acres.

By an amazing stroke of luck, there were no reports of injury and little property damage caused by the raining debris. NASA officials crossed themselves, and Florida Today space reporter Todd Halvorson wrote an investigative story stating that if the instant breakup of the Space Shuttle had occurred only one minute earlier, the bulk of the wreckage would have fallen on south Dallas.

The recovered debris played a significant role in the investigation, as Space Shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach and his engineers were able to use parts of the wreckage to build a three-dimensional reconstruction of Columbia’s left wing at Florida’s Shuttle Landing Facility.

After a comprehensive seven-month investigation, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, chaired by retired navy admiral Harold W. Gehman, Jr., issued a scathing report, confirming without a doubt that “the foam did it” and indicting NASA as a co-conspirator, stating that “the NASA organizational culture had as much to do with the accident as well as the foam.” The board cited eight missed opportunities to detect the problem during the flight and identified schedule pressures and communications breakdowns as contributing factors.

I had been on television for months asking blunt questions: “Why didn’t you look? Why didn’t the Mission Management Team act responsibly and identify the damage?” In fact, my questions were so pointed, lifelong associates came to me and said, “Jay, you’re losing a lot of friends. You’re unfair.” And I said, “Remember Apollo 13?”

I told the associates and our NBC viewers, let’s rewind the tape back to Columbia’s flight day three. Let’s do a little what-iffing.

Suppose after reviewing the tapes of the foam hit, the Mission Management Team accepted the recommendation of the Inter Center Photo Working Group to get more imagery. Suppose chairwoman Linda Ham had then called the Defense Department with an emergency request to use America’s spy satellites. The spy satellites’ powerful cameras would surely have revealed the damage to Columbia’s left wing. While she most likely would have had to call the White House for immediate use of the recon-satellites, President Bush surely would have responded and the Mission Management Team could have gotten pictures of Columbia’s damage. NASA would have exhausted all its resources to bring their comrades back. Flight directors and Shuttle engineers would have inventoried every item on board Columbia to determine if they had materials that could be used to plug the hole. At the same time, the Shuttle launch team would begin around-the-clock processing of the shuttle Atlantis to prepare it for the earliest possible rescue launch.

The astronauts would be directed to conserve on-board consumables such as oxygen and water, and by modifying crew activity and sleep time, carbon dioxide could be kept to acceptable levels until flight day thirty, February 15—fifteen days beyond the day they perished.

To make the repair, the crew members would hang onto a makeshift ladder from the cargo-bay door and plug the six-inch hole with heavy metal tools, small pieces of titanium, or other metals scavenged from Columbia. These heavy metals could help protect the wing structure and would be held in place for reentry by a water-filled bag that would turn to ice in the void of space, possibly restoring leading-edge geometry, preventing a turbulent airflow over the wing, and keeping the heating and burn-through levels low enough for the crew to survive reentry.

A different reentry profile could have been flown to lessen the heating on the left wing, and the astronauts would be prepared to bail out if the wing structure was predicted to fail on landing. NASA called the repair option “viable” but a high-risk long shot.

The rescue mission appeared to be the better alternative. Of course, the Mission Management Team would first have had to weigh the odds of another devastating foam hit as Atlantis roared into orbit. At that time, Atlantis was being readied for a March 1 launch.

If the decision was to “go,” working around the clock Atlantis could have been prepared for a February 10 launch without taking any shortcuts. That would provide a five-day launch window to reach Columbia’s astronauts before time ran out.

Seven commanders, seven pilots, and nine mission specialists trained in spacewalking were available. The rescue mission would have required a crew of four—a commander, a pilot, and two mission specialists.

In February, launch weather is traditionally great at the Cape, and looking back, it was beautiful for a launch during the February 10–15 time period.

The plan called for Atlantis to rendezvous under an inverted Columbia and station keep with the cargo doors of both Shuttles open, facing each other. Using tethered ropes, the Columbia astronauts would have been brought on board Atlantis. After the successful rescue, Mission Control would have configured Columbia for a de-orbit burn that would ditch the crippled Shuttle in the Pacific.

To NASA, the rescue option was considered “challenging but feasible.” And, despite NASA management shortcomings in the loss of Columbia, the great majority of NASA employees are still imbued with Apollo 13’s “can do” spirit. For every Space Shuttle launch, a rescue shuttle is standing by. The space station is a safe haven, and rescue crews stand in deep lines ready to fly to the aid of their fellow astronauts.

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