Mike and I were invited to speak at the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation’s “Space Rendezvous” in Cocoa Beach, Florida in November this year. Our presentation was entitled “Columbia Recovery and Reconstruction: An American Story of Courage, Compassion, and Commitment.” It was the first time Mike and I had jointly given a talk, and what an audience it was—ASF board members, at least a dozen astronauts, former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, people who had worked on the Space Shuttle Program, and dozens of “civilians” for whom the space program forms an important part of their lives. Many of those present had flown on Columbia, supported her on the ground, or had been part of the search and recovery effort.
Mike opened with an overview of Columbia’s STS-107 mission and the aftermath of the accident. He recounted his experiences on Landing Day, as he awaited Columbia‘s return, and the horrible feeling of profound emptiness he experienced when he realized Columbia was lost.
Jonathan followed with a discussion of what the people in East Texas were experiencing at that same moment when Columbia‘s debris created a continuous cacophony of sonic booms and the wreckage began impacting the ground. Mike and Jonathan then talked about the mobilization efforts that began immediately after the accident, both at NASA and at the local level in Texas, and the overwhelming success of the recovery forces who worked for three months to find Columbia‘s debris in East Texas.
Mike described his experience in leading the reconstruction of Columbiaat Kennedy Space Center. He also talked with pride about preservation of Columbia‘s debris and the ensuing lessons-learned program that has turned Columbia into a living laboratory about the effects of uncontrolled hypersonic reentry.
Throughout the presentation, Jonathan and Mike invited audience members to share their experiences. Astronaut Jim Wetherbee discussed his challenges in leading the daunting task of recovering the crew’s remains. Administrator Griffin spoke about correcting the issues and flaws uncovered by the Investigation Board and returning the shuttle to flight.
The ASF provided a Facebook Live stream of the talk, which can be found here. (If this link does not work, please visit the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation page on Facebook, scroll down to “videos,” and look for the untitled video dated November 3.)
This is just a quick note to let everyone know that “Bringing Columbia Home” is going to press tomorrow!
Mike and I began collaborating on this book in April 2015. On one hand, it feels like ages since we started this project. On the other hand, the time has flown by. We’ve met so many amazing folks along the way and heard so many incredible stories about how Columbia touched people’s lives. I can’t express enough how profoundly rewarding it has been to help bring the story of Columbia’s heroes to the attention of the broader public.
Our publisher tells us that the book will be shipped to stores in late December. Despite the official release date of January 23, the book should start appearing on shelves in early January.
Please be sure to check the Upcoming Events page of this website, where Mike and I will maintain our schedule of talks, book signings, and other public appearances.
Thank you again for your interest and support along the way — and stay tuned!
One of the most positive outgrowths from the Columbia accident remains the Debris Loan Program. I have sung its praise in earlier posts, and for good reason. Another initiative underway has equal or greater positive potential.
Something more meaningful than studying the debris in order to design safer spacecraft? Yes. What about something to deal with some of the common root causes of America’s manned spaceflight accidents? To deal with them BEFORE they become big problems.
This is NASA’s Apollo Challenger Columbia Lessons Learned Program. (ACCLLP)
Never heard of it? That’s understandable, given its newness. But I hope that as it matures and gains traction within NASA, its value will be realized and its lessons made available even outside NASA organizations. The lessons NASA learned the hard way are widely applicable. Think about the value of open communications vs. stifled debate as just one example.
So what is the ACCLLP?
It’s a fully-funded and staffed NASA HQ initiative to teach all NASA and supporting organizations about the causes—and especially the common causes—of the three fatal accidents. And obviously, as the causes are discussed, the more important topic of their lessons learned are emphasized.
Back to open communications: Challenger and her crew were victims of stifled debate as surely as flawed hardware. Improvements to the hardware proved easier to implement than the organizational and cultural corrections based on that tough lesson learned. NASA improved its communications and management practices, but they eroded over the 17 years between Challenger and Columbia. We fell back into some bad habits: over-confidence, less hunger for fully understanding the potential for minor issues becoming major ones, and to a degree stifled debate. Columbia was victim to those practices just as surely as Challenger.
How does ACCLLP work and how can it help?
Mike Ciannilli (who I fondly call “Chachi”) is a former member of the shuttle launch team and one of the people who conducted aerial searches for Columbia’s debris. He created, developed, and now manages the ACCLLP for NASA and is 100% dedicated to its success. Mike has developed lessons learned programs and “teaches” them to the workforce at KSC and other centers. He routinely conducts tours of the Columbia Preservation room in the Vehicle Assembly Building each week. These reach a wide array of folks across all NASA Centers and missions, including civil servants, contractors along with the brand new commercial crew workforce—even NASA Space Act partners such as NASCAR. Mike ensures that these tours powerfully emphasize the lessons of the past and present, and their direct impact to the future.
Mike is also creating the Agency’s largest lessons learned library with teaching materials from NASA and other organizations. It is the agency’s best advocate to not ignore or forget the past, but rather to learn from it.
A traveling road show took some key pieces of Columbia’s debris to the NASA Centers over a decade ago. Word has it that Chachi is creating a brand new and really cool concept to bring Columbia herself to the masses as we speak. Fireside chats featuring ‘graybeards’ talking about Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia have been held to full houses and garnering outstanding reviews. And other concepts to discuss lessons learned are being developed to help spread the word, including videos that would be made widely available. Mike is overloaded with requests, and loves it!
So if you’re currently involved in manned spaceflight (or unmanned spaceflight for that matter) and want to know more about this extremely positive outcome of NASA’s three fatal accidents, look up Mike. He’s based at KSC and would love to have you and your organization exposed to his work. I promise you’ll not only be impressed with his enthusiasm, but the lessons learned will be applicable and valuable for your people. There’s no doubt.
Two years ago this week, I was in Hemphill, Texas to conduct interviews for “Bringing Columbia Home.” Belinda Gay and Marsha Cooper of Hemphill’s Patricia Huffman Smith “Remembering Columbia” Museum had graciously provided space in the museum to conduct the interviews, and had arranged for several dozen people to meet with me.
I flew into Houston, rented a car, and then made the two-hour drive to Hemphill. The flatlands and concrete jungle of the Houston area gradually gave way to a more scenic, wooded environment. (I made sure to stop for a Whataburger on the way north!) By the time I turned off at Lufkin and started heading east, I was now following in the path of the debris from Columbia as it broke apart in the morning sky on February 1, 2003. I tried hard to imagine what it was like on that chilly, foggy morning when the silence was pierced by the thunder of the reentry of the debris, and as thousands of pieces came to earth over a 250-mile-long path. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it. The forest grew thicker the farther east I drove, and I passed along the Sam Rayburn Reservoir before arriving in Sabine County and Hemphill.
I made the mistake of turning off my cell phone when I got out of the car to look around town. I had no cell service when I tried to power it back up again—and I was relying on it to show me the way to my motel! Fortunately, I managed to find my way there. My lodging for the night was in a beautiful set of cottages overlooking the Toledo Bend Reservoir. (The lack of cell service was even more of an issue for the NASA search teams back in 2003, to the extent that Verizon brought in temporary cell towers so that the searchers could communicate with each other and their search coordinators.)
From the very first interview the next morning, I was overwhelmed with the graciousness and goodness of these people. They were all eager to share their stories of a pivotal time in their lives and in the life of their community. My first interviews were with Doug Hamilton, a law enforcement officer from the US Forest Service, and Sheriff Tom Maddox of Sabine County. They were among the first responders on the scene when debris from Columbia was positively identified—and the remains of the first of Columbia‘s crew were discovered.
Later that morning I interviewed “Squeaky” and Byron Starr, the town’s funeral directors, who played key roles in recovering the remains of Columbia‘s crew with dignity and discretion. I also talked with Roger Gay, the commander of the town’s VFW at the time of the accident. The VFW hall would become the focal point of activity for the thousands of searchers who descended on Hemphill for the recovery of the ship and her crew.
The afternoon was reserved for speaking with some of the townspeople who volunteered to do anything they could to help in the recovery. Dwight Riley was 65 years old in 2003, but he didn’t let his age interfere with searching the woods. He recalled finding a “Lift-the-Dot” type of snap lying on the ground in the woods and wondering, “Where did that come from? Was it on a harness, or a wall, or a uniform? How did that come from space to land here?” As he reflected on the events of that February, he broke into tears, saying that it was the most rewarding thing he’d ever done in his life.
Mrs. Hivie McCowan, now 90 years old, told about hearing the horrible noise on that fateful morning. She recalled that the local authorities asked everyone to search their property for pieces of the shuttle, but she was afraid that she might encounter remains of the crew. She found a large piece of metal frame from Columbia in her back yard. She was one of the many people who volunteered to serve food to searchers at the VFW Hall. This quote from her interview illustrates what the experience was like for so many people:
I handled more tea than I’ll ever handle in my lifetime. And the people that I served, you wouldn’t want anybody to be any nicer. The guys that come through, they seemed so nice and mannerly. I never heard a foul word or nothing come out of all them men’s mouth that come through. And you know, usually somebody’ll act up. But they didn’t. And I was serving tea. They had sweet tea and they had, you know, tea without sugar, unsweetened. So I got to the place to let ’em know what I was serving. I’d just, I’d say “Sweet tea,” and they’d come to me. I’d say, “Sweet tea,”–and the other was serving other tea–I’d say, “Sweet tea? Sweet tea?” I said “Sweet tea” so long, until they named me ‘Sweet Tea.’ Dr., let me see, what was his name–. Dr. Somebody out of Beaumont, I forget his name. He called me Sweet Tea first, and then the rest of ’em went to calling me Sweet Tea, and I was just serving tea. I helped serve food, too. It was awesome.
The next two days of interviews included other participants in the search, both officials and volunteers. Jamie Sowell of the US Forest Service spoke about his organizing and leading search teams into the woods during the first two weeks of February. School teacher Sunny Whittington described how she was inspired to have her elementary school class make hundreds of sandwiches to feed the searchers, each lunch containing a handwritten note of encouragement from one of the children. Another of the searchers I spoke to that week recalled the note in his lunch bag, and he broke into tears telling me about how deeply meaningful that gesture was to him in such a difficult time.
Felix Holmes of the US Forest Service was involved in the recovery of Columbia‘s nose cap, which was found in the woods outside Hemphill. He bulldozed a clearing so that a helicopter could attempt to airlift the structure out of the woods. When high winds thwarted the airlift, he bulldozed a path for a four-wheeler and trailer to get back to the site. Holmes was also instrumental in creating a path in Ayish Bayou for rescuers to reach the site of the fatal search helicopter crash in March 2003.
Greg Cohrs of the US Forest Service was pressed into service on the morning of February 1, 2003 to try to bring order out of the chaos of the initial response to the accident. Cohrs went on to coordinate the search operations in Sabine County in the first two weeks of February, during the search for the crew’s remains. He also continued to be involved throughout the debris recovery effort that lasted until late April. He kept a detailed journal of his day-by-day activities during that period. He graciously shared that with us, and he became a key consultant—and good friend—to Mike Leinbach and me as we put the book together. We believe that Greg’s accounts of the daily struggles and the highs and lows of the search operations truly make “Bringing Columbia Home” a gripping account of the human drama of that intense period. We’ll forever be indebted to Greg for his contributions.
Miss Marie “Little Granny” Nelson was overwhelming in her kindness toward me. She brought me a chocolate cake one day, banana pudding another day, and gave me a blue sequined cowboy hat and Texas flag shirt another day. She was yet another of the volunteers who helped make life easier for the searchers. She recalled talking to National Guardsmen who were bivouacked in the gym of Hemphill’s high school. One of the guard asked her, “Ma’am, where are we?” She went to the library and photocopied maps of the area to help these people get their bearings relative to the rest of Texas.
Mike Alexander was another volunteer searcher. He recalled the emotions of the search effort, and also talked about how the town responded. One of the ways that townspeople helped was to open their homes to other volunteers who had no place to stay during the search, as there are few fish camps or motels in the area. He recalled talking to one man on his crew, Dan Sauerwein, who worked at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at Johnson Space Center. Sauerwein had driven up from JSC to help with the search and was sleeping in his car. Alexander told him, “You’re staying at my house from now on.”
One of the great coincidences that made putting this book together so powerful for me is that Dan Sauerwein later contacted me via Facebook. He recalled Alexander’s generosity but had lost touch with him over the years. I was able to put the two of them back in contact with each other.
Throughout this overwhelming period of interviews, Marsha Cooper and Belinda Gay kept me organized and also filled in a lot of details. They were of course both deeply involved in the recovery. Belinda solicited the food donations and coordinated the volunteers who served somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 meals at the VFW during February 2003. Marsha was in the first search teams to go into the woods after the accident to look for Columbia‘s crew, and she coordinated much of the interface between the media and the US Forest Service during the recovery operations.
Gay and Cooper were also the driving force behind establishing the Columbia museum in Hemphill—an incredible test of perseverance in overcoming bureaucracy and people who wished simply to forget that the accident ever happened. Their efforts will, I believe, ultimately be as important in preserving the legacy of Columbia as those of the NASA officials who preserved Columbia‘s debris for future study.
One afternoon, we drove out to see where some of the searches had taken place. We visited the “nose cone” site, where Columbia‘s reinforced carbon-carbon nose cap and its supporting structure came to earth. Gay and Cooper have been actively trying since 2003 to turn this into a National Memorial to commemorate Columbia and the deeds of the people of East Texas in recovering the ship and her crew. They even solicited design proposals from architecture students at Texas A&M University.
We also stopped by the site where the first of Columbia‘s crew were recovered on the morning of the accident. The landowner erected a simple cross saying “American Hero” shortly after the accident. It is a stark and sobering reminder of the human cost of space exploration.
My short visit to Hemphill was one of the most moving experiences in my life. I left there forever changed—completely overwhelmed by what everyday people can do when suddenly thrown into responding to an extraordinary event. I hope that “Bringing Columbia Home” will pay some small measure of homage to these incredible people who are truly American heroes.
The 4th quarter 2017 issue of “Texas Roadways” magazine will be doing a feature story on Hemphill and the Remembering Columbia Museum.
It’s been a while since I posted a new blog. No excuses, just apologies. Hurricane Irma certainly did a number on Florida, and all us residents are still dealing with the aftermath.
On a recent visit to the Columbia Preservation Room in the VAB (to show the debris to some ULA employees), Mike Ciannilli updated us on the continuing success of the debris loan program with some truly amazing statistics. I want to share his success with you here, but first please allow me some personal reflections.
When the reconstruction team proposed studying Columbia vs burying it (à la Challenger), we could not possibly have dreamed how successful and inspiring the outcome would be. With Administrator O’Keefe’s full support and encouragement, Scott Thurston crafted an in-depth concept for the program, wrote and released a Request for Information to industry to judge interest—and the rest, as they say, is history. THANKS, Scott.
Once we knew definitively studying the debris was a good idea, the Columbia Preservation Office was officially dedicated (on the first anniversary of the accident) in its new home on the 16th floor of A Tower of the VAB. United Space Alliance’s Amy Mangiacapra was the first curator and held the position for 10 years. Alone, she cared for the debris, collected pieces requested for study, managed the room, escorted visitors, dealt with ceiling leaks, swept the floors, and did everything/anything required. She was Columbia’s caretaker, and she did it in a manner beyond what she (and we) considered a job. Columbia was her “work child”. Amazing. THANKS, Amy.
NASA created a full-time position for the office in 2014. Mike Ciannilli became the first NASA curator, and by any measure, is the perfect person to take care of Columbia following Amy. (As with the astronauts, we like to give each other nicknames. Because Mike bears a resemblance to “Chachi” Happy Days, we lovingly refer to him as “Chachi” or “Chach.”)
Not only does Chach administer the debris loan program, but under his leadership and that of KSC Center Director Bob Cabana, the Forever Remembered memorial was opened in the Atlantis building at the KSC Visitor Complex. Columbia’s forward window frames are in a display case for everyone to see and contemplate. They also got the Challenger families to embrace the concept, with the large sidewall piece of Challenger now occupying an adjacent case. Moreover, with the vision of the greater good that can come from studying past failures, in 2016 Mike created the “Apollo Challenger Columbia Lessons Learned Program,” bringing those hard-taught lessons to the workforce and others in hopes they won’t be repeated ever again. GREAT JOB, Chachi.
Finally, the statistics Chach and all of us are so proud to share: To date some 260 pieces of Columbia have been lent to academia and industry for study. As I write this, 12 pieces weighing over 1000 pounds are being studied to advance the understanding in how different materials and structures behave when subjected to the extreme conditions of hypersonic re-entry. And of particular pride, there are three individuals who used Columbia in their PhD dissertations in achieving the highest scholastic degrees in engineering and material science. That’s what I call success!!!!!!
In a very real sense Columbia continues her mission….
The scenes of floodwaters and devastation in Houston and southeast Texas are almost unbelievable.
We know that this is an awful time for everyone in the affected area. Our words, thoughts, prayers—all are completely inadequate to express our sorrow for what our friends are going through right now and our hopes that you are all okay.
If there’s any consolation to be had, it’s that Texans have repeatedly demonstrated themselves to be an incredibly strong and supportive people. No doubt the same spirit of tenacity, caring, and dedication that you demonstrated during the Columbia tragedy will also see you through this disaster.
On August 12, 2003, Roger and Belinda Gay came to Kennedy Space Center from Hemphill, Texas. It was an opportunity for NASA to thank them for their overwhelming service in the recovery of Columbia and her crew.
When Columbia broke up over East Texas on February 1, 2003, the remains of her crew came to Earth in Sabine County, as did much of the debris from the crew module and the forward end of the orbiter. The population of the small town of Hemphill in Sabine County tripled overnight, as thousands of people came to town to search for the crew. The sudden influx of people was far more than the few restaurants and motels in town could accommodate.
Roger Gay was the commander of Hemphill’s Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post, and his wife Belinda was chair of the VFW Ladies Auxiliary. On the day of the accident, the local incident command team asked Roger if the VFW hall could provide some sandwiches for the searchers. He quickly became overwhelmed as the number of searchers skyrocketed. He asked his wife Belinda, who had been helping search the woods for Columbia‘s crew, to coordinate efforts to help feed and support the searchers.
Over the next several days, Belinda made hundreds of phone calls to ask the people of Sabine County and the neighboring communities for help. The outpouring of support was the stuff of which legends are made, and we talk about it at length in our book. All told, the community provided and served somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 meals to the search teams in Sabine County, at no cost to the taxpayer. The people of Sabine County also invited searchers to stay at their homes, did their laundry, bought them dry socks…the list goes on. Strong bonds were formed between the searchers and the people of the community.
Belinda knew that something of tremendous significance had happened in that time. “I can’t explain it except to say that we witnessed a miracle in action,” she later told Spaceport News. She felt called to preserve the memory of Columbia‘s crew, the two recovery workers who died in a helicopter crash, and the good works of the people of East Texas. Before the summer even started, she and her friend Marsha Cooper from the US Forest Service began investigating options for creating a memorial park in Sabine County.
NASA invited the Gays to visit Kennedy Space Center that summer. On August 12, they visited one of the Orbiter Processing Facilities and met some of the workers who had prepared Columbia for her last mission. Then they toured the hangar where work on reconstructing Columbia‘s debris was wrapping up.
Belinda told Spaceport News, “We needed to come here. Seeing the hangar was a very emotional experience and gave us some sense of closure.”