Telling Columbia’s Story in “Real Time”

Time is a fascinating phenomenon. Setting aside discussions of special relativity, it’s pretty safe to say that objectively, time flows at the same rate every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year.

Subjectively, though, we perceive time’s passage as highly variable. It can zip past or drag on endlessly. Ask a ninth-grade student sitting in a boring class at 2:10 in the afternoon how long he feels it will be until school lets out, and he’ll say “forever.”

For us more senior folks, it’s a different story. I saw a post on Facebook the other day that said, “I was taking a surprise spelling test in tenth grade. I closed my eyes for a moment, and now I’m an old person.”

One of the challenges faced by an author of narrative non-fiction is how to capture the flow of time as perceived by the participants in the story, while contrasting that with what was actually going on in real time.

By the afternoon of the day of the Columbia accident, FEMA, the FBI, NASA, and the Texas Forest Service set up a command center in the Lufkin, Texas civic center. Mark Stanford led the TFS contingent. He found the windowless environment to be like the inside of a casino, with no cues as to what time it was. The frenetic, non-stop pace of responding to the emergency caused him to completely lose track of time. “I told someone I hadn’t slept in almost 72 hours,” he told me in an interview, “but then I learned that it was less than 24 hours since the accident.”

How do you write about less frantic periods? Stephen King insists that writers “leave out the boring parts.” Well, sometimes things just plain are boring. Days drag on while you wait for something to happen. Likewise, days melt into each other while you repeat the same process over and over, chipping away at the block of stone until the statue gradually appears. The writer must honor the work being done, somehow conveying the sense of tedium experienced by the participants, without also boring the reader!

Looking back over the first draft of the manuscript for Bringing Columbia Home, I see that we spent 20% of the words in the book describing the events in the 15 hours following the accident. The next two days take 10% of the book. The next two weeks take 15%. And the next two months account for 20% of the word count. That will give you some concept for the pace of activity in the recovery and reconstruction of Columbia.

And it’s interesting to note that the first day’s activities we describe are several hundred people reacting quickly to the crisis. But by the middle of the spring, it’s tens of thousands of people executing very methodical processes.

Going into the new year, Mike and I are going to use each week’s blog posts to highlight some of the events that were going on during the same time period in 2003. This weekly account over the period of a year will take us up to the release of Bringing Columbia Home and the 15th anniversary of the Columbia accident.

If you were a participant in the recovery and reconstruction—or even a bystander—we welcome you to share your recollections via comments on the blog pages.

We hope you will enjoy seeing this story unfold in real time.

We will also keep you informed on the progress of the book‘s publication, release date, book signings, etc.

Wishing you a very happy and prosperous New Year –

Jonathan and Mike

columbia_sts-109_preparing_for_launch
Columbia on the launch pad prior to the March 2002 STS-109 mission (NASA photo)

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.

4 thoughts on “Telling Columbia’s Story in “Real Time””

  1. I was in Lufkin during the recovery as the Admin for Texas for United Space Alliance. I needed to keep track of where everyone was, hotel arrangements, making sure their flights were arranged, etc. When the helicopter went down, made sure everyone was taken care of and families reunited wth their loved ones. Our ‘homebase’ (Lufkin) was where they brought the personal affects found of the astronauts. It was an experience I will never forget.

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    1. Hi Lynda, I imagine that was an incredibly challenging job with so many people rotating in and out. I interviewed Larry Ostarly and Linda Moynihan about their experiences with USA in Barksdale. I’m sure people deeply appreciated your taking care of them in such a critical situation.

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      1. Yes, it was challenging…and rewarding…worked with a lot of great folks. Linda was actually the person that volunteered me for the job. There were many long days…there were times when I had 4 phones I was answering at a time! It was a privilege and an honor to help during that time….. and memories to last a lifetime.

        I flew to Barksdale on my birthday, Feb 4, came back at Easter, then flew back to finish out; however, my dad took ill and ended up flying to see him before his passing in April. I was disappointed I wasn’t able to close down and finish out with the crew.

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  2. Good post, Jonathan. Helping on the sets for T-Minus has caused me to completely lose track of time. It’s a big, cold, mostly windowless warehouse. It’s interesting to think about the mental health of someone, say an astronaut on a long voyage or living on another planet, when he or she doesn’t experience the daily passage of the sun.

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