Interviews and truth

Bringing Columbia Home is my third book. Other than the obvious similarity with my other two books, in that it deals with the American space program, it shares another key element: it relies heavily on oral history and interviews.

I can’t adequately describe what a thrill it is to interview people who were on the scene during important times and events in history. Some people had “bigger” roles than others, consistent with their job titles or the scope of their responsibilities. However, events like the Columbia tragedy profoundly shaped people’s lives, no matter what their role or scope. Everyone who was involved has their truth about how the event and their reactions to it were turning points in their lives.

One question I like to ask in my interviews is: What did you learn about yourself in going through this experience? That never fails to make people reflect on the importance of what they did when they were put to the test. Many people break into tears when it suddenly strikes them how deeply they were affected by all that they went through in a critical period. I feel profoundly honored to be present with people as they recall such moments.

My last corporate job was as a consultant in organizational effectiveness and change. In big companies, it’s physically impossible to talk to everyone, but you also want to get as many perspectives as you can. My usual approach was to interview a “diagonal slice” of people in an organization—talk to a representative sample of people from all levels and all job functions within the organization I was studying.

In a situation like the Columbia accident, where there were 25,000 people directly involved in the search for the shuttle’s debris, and hundreds of people in the reconstruction hangar at KSC—not to mention the hundreds of thousands of people who were residents of the area where Columbia‘s debris came to Earth—I had to use a somewhat similar approach.

I did a quick tally of the interviewees for our book the other day, and here are some examples of the kinds of people I talked to:

  • Senior NASA officials (Administrator, senior staff, Center directors, etc.)
  • Senior officials from FBI, FEMA, US Forest Service, Texas Forest Service
  • 14 former astronauts
  • Managers, engineers, and technicians from NASA, Boeing, United Space Alliance, Spacehab, and other organizations
  • Consultant to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board
  • Forestry workers with the US Forest Service and Texas Forest Service
  • A County Judge, sheriffs, law enforcement officials, a special agent for the FBI, a city manager, and other local officials
  • Residents of Sabine County, Texas who volunteered as searchers or volunteered to help the recovery operations in other ways
  • A school principal and teacher
  • A Baptist minister and two funeral directors
  • Hotshot firefighters contracted by the US Forest Service
  • NASA and contractor engineers and technicians who deployed officially (and also unofficially) to assist in the search and recovery operations

All told, I’ve talked to about 100 participants, and I’m still talking to more. We have over 600,000 words of interview transcripts from conversations over the past 20 months. Obviously, we’ll soon reach the point where there isn’t time to include information for additional interviews, or we’ll never finish the book.

If you were involved in the Columbia search, recovery, or reconstruction, I strongly urge you to write down your memories! Mike and I would of course love to hear about your experiences. Feel free to contact us at the links on this site. We can’t guarantee that we will be able to use your stories in the book. However, we do vow to share the collective experiences either through this blog or some other means of preserving Columbia‘s history.

jonathan-with-marie-nelson
Jonathan with Mrs. Marie “Little Granny” Nelson, who fed and supported the searchers in Hemphill, Texas during the Columbia recovery. (Photo taken October 21, 2015 at the Patricia Huffman Smith “Remembering Columbia” Museum in Hemphill.)

Author: Jonathan Ward

Jonathan Ward is an author of books on the history of American manned spaceflight. He also serves as an adjunct executive coach at the Center for Creative Leadership.

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