The Mission

As I write this entry the crew of Columbia was beginning their 6th day in orbit 14 years ago. Those of us involved in the series of Mission Management Team meetings were aware of the foam strike on the Orbiter. Most people just casually following the mission probably didn’t know.

The astronauts on board were conducting the mission plan as written, totally unaware of the strike. It would be on Day 7 that a brief summary of the event was sent to them, ending in “… absolutely no concern for entry.” Houston also uplinked a brief video of the foam strike. That was sent to them to give them a heads-up in case reporters asked a question about the foam strike during a press conference.

We held just four MMT meetings during the mission, essentially falling back into a pattern of ‘meet only if something comes up’ rather than one of meeting each day and stating nothing has come up. It should have been similar to the launch Go/No-Go poll. Rather then assuming a system is Go, ASK THEM. Make them commit. We didn’t do this in the STS-107 MMT meetings. We assumed the best. That was Bad.

I’m not going to get into a blame game. Not gonna happen.

Suffice to say, numerous Shuttle program management strategies AFTER the accident changed significantly. MMT meetings were required to be held every day—NO EXCEPTIONS. All projects were polled at each meeting in an attempt to drive out any issues or concerns. Dissenting opinions were not only encouraged, but sought out. A new “open” atmosphere was palpable and it made it much easier for lower level engineers to speak up. And I can say emphatically that these improvements served us well to the very end.

I will make one point, however, that I hope all future manned (and unmanned) program leaders will heed. When offered more data to help make a decision, take it. We had a sort of trite, but straightforward saying when tackling a tough problem – “Trust in God, all others bring data.” Of course I’m referring to the option of getting on-orbit photographs of Columbia from other Government agencies. We didn’t. We should have. Why didn’t we? All sorts of things factored in, but it’s mostly because we had gotten overconfident that foam hits couldn’t harm the Orbiter, though they were completely outside its design spec. Complacency from previous non-critical hits clouded our decisions. Columbia’s hits were characterized as ‘turnaround issues’ not ‘safety of flight’ issues. And even in the face of extremely knowledgeable engineers trying to get us to listen to their concerns, we pressed on.

Would the pictures have led to a different outcome? Given the timing required to effect a rescue mission, probably not. Getting the pictures and committing to the rescue would have had to have happened unrealistically early in the mission. But the point is the same – get data. Get all the data possible for making critical decisions. And be as blind to flight history data as possible. It can be the wolf waiting to pounce.

We learned thousands of lessons through the thirty-year Shuttle program. Fourteen astronauts paid the ultimate price for some of them. I hope we were the last program to experience what bad decisions can ultimately mean. However, I’m sorry to say that I’m  sure we won’t be the last program to learn lessons the hard way.

A visible-light photo of Columbia on orbit taken from Hawaii by the US Air Force Maui Optical and Supercomputing Site (AMOS). The damaged area of the left wing is hidden behind the open cargo bay doors.

Author: Mike Leinbach

Mike was the final Space Shuttle Launch Director at NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center. He led the launch team for all Shuttle missions from August 2000 to the end of the program in 2011, giving the final "go" for every launch.

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