Landing Day—Silence and Shock

(The following is the Preface to our upcoming book, “Bringing Columbia Home,” which will be published late this year.)

Kennedy Space Center
February 1, 2003

Twin sonic booms in rapid succession, one from the space shuttle’s nose and one from its vertical tail, were always the fanfare announcing the mighty spacecraft’s arrival. The timing of the phenomenon was determined by the immutable laws of physics. Three minutes and fifteen seconds before landing, as the shuttle glided toward the Kennedy Space Center, it dropped below the speed of sound and produced the double concussion. Loud and unmistakable, it could be heard up and down Florida’s Space Coast. This was our cue to start scanning the skies for a victorious space shuttle, descending toward us in the distance.

Columbia and her crew of seven astronauts were coming home from sixteen days in orbit. After six million miles circling the Earth, they had reentered the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean, crossed the California coast, and then flown over the Desert Southwest and Texas en route to Florida. These last few miles would be their victory lap in front of her astronaut crewmembers’ families and the KSC personnel who tended her on the ground.

As KSC’s launch director, I was one of the officials who would welcome Columbia home. At 9:12 this cool morning, we listened and waited for the thunderous sonic booms, like the percussion of an artillery volley. Oddly, the sounds were completely absent.

Over the loudspeaker feed from Mission Control, we heard repeated calls to the crew: “Columbia, Houston. Comm check.” Long moments of silence punctuated each call. “Columbia, Houston. UHF comm check.”

I found this confusing and alarming. I looked up at the clouds and turned to Wayne Hale, former ascent and entry flight director, and asked him, “What do you think?”

He thought for a moment and responded with a single word: “Beacons.”

That one word hit me hard. The astronauts’ orange launch and entry suits were equipped with radio beacons, in case the crew needed to bail out during a landing approach.

Hale clearly knew the crew was in trouble. He was already thinking about how to find them.

My God.

The landing countdown clock positioned between the runway and us counted down to zero. Then it began counting up. It always did this after shuttle landings, but we had never really paid attention to it, because there had always been a vehicle on the runway and that clock had become irrelevant.

The shuttle is never late. It simply cannot be.

Columbia wasn’t here. She could not have landed elsewhere along the route. She was somewhere between orbit and KSC, but we didn’t know where.

I tried to sort out my thoughts. Something was horribly wrong. An indescribably empty feeling swept over me. My position as launch director was one of knowledge and control. Now I had neither.

Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral have seen more than their share of launch disasters. A launch catastrophe is unmistakable—tremendous noise, a horrendous fireball, and smoking debris falling into the ocean. My mind flashed back to the frigid morning of January 28, 1986. I had seen Challenger lift off from pad 39B and disappear into a violent conflagration shortly afterward. I remember thinking that Challenger would emerge from the fireball, fly around, and land behind me at the Shuttle Landing Facility. But we never saw Challenger again. I recalled leaving the site with a few friends as debris and smoke trails continued to rain down into the Atlantic, just off the coast. It was a terrible thing to witness in person.

Today’s situation was completely different. Our emergency plans assumed that a landing problem would happen within sight of the runway. A failed landing attempt would be immediately obvious to everyone at the runway.

Today, there was nothing to see, nothing to hear. We had no idea what to do.

Columbia simply wasn’t here.

We all knew something awful must have happened to Columbia, but our senses could tell us nothing. The audio feed from Mission Control had gone eerily silent.

The breeze picked up. Low rippling clouds masked the sun. The quiet was broken only by a few cell phones that began ringing in the bleachers where spectators and the crew’s families were waiting. The astronauts in the ground support crew huddled briefly by the convoy command vehicle. Then they sprinted toward the family viewing stand.

I glanced over at Sean O’Keefe, NASA’s administrator. I could see he was clearly in shock. O’Keefe’s deputy, former astronaut Bill Readdy, stood at his side. Readdy looked me in the eye and asked, “Contingency?” Unable to speak, I simply nodded.

Readdy carried a notebook containing NASA’s agency-wide contingency plan for spaceflight emergencies. Ever the pragmatist, O’Keefe had ordered this plan updated within hours of his becoming administrator in late 2001. Now, barely one year later, the plan had to be activated. The procedures designated Readdy to make the official call. Readdy opened the book and told O’Keefe that he was declaring a spaceflight contingency.

Gathering my thoughts and trying to keep my emotions in check, I told the officials to meet me in my office back at the Launch Control Center, about two and one-half miles to the south. We could confer there in private and get more information about the situation.

KSC security personnel and astronaut escorts quickly led the crew’s families away from viewing stands to a bus that would take them to the privacy of the crew quarters. The other spectators—many of whom were friends of the crew or members of the crew’s extended families—were also ushered to waiting buses.

There was no announcement of what had happened, but everyone knew that it must be something dreadful. Few words were spoken. People wept and hugged each other as their initial emptiness slowly filled with grief.

In the utterly inadequate jargon of astronauts and space workers, this was going to be a bad day.

As I hustled back to my vehicle, I had no concept for just how long this horrible day would last—or how inspiring its aftermath would ultimately be.

(c) 2017 Mike Leinbach and Jonathan Ward

Tomorrow: The Sky Is Falling

The landing convoy deploys to KSC’s Shuttle Landing Facility to greet a returning space shuttle (NASA/Ben Smegelsky, 2011)

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.

10 thoughts on “Landing Day—Silence and Shock”

  1. There are many beautiful “monuments” honoring our fallen space explorers. But the best way we can honor their sacrifice is to keep going.
    On January 31, 2003 Brian Duffy spoke to the students at DMCS in Merritt Island at our Space Day event. His words were inspiring then and still do today.
    ” The astronauts we honor today would say, don’t mourn for me, for I was doing something I loved. There are ten astronauts in space right now continuing their mission and seven of them will land here tomorrow.”

    Tragically they didn’t.

    Today there are six astronauts and cosmonauts serving aboard the International Space Station. New spacecraft and launch vehicles are being built. Missions to deep space are being planned.

    The Dream is still Alive.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sitting in a classroom in Cape Canaveral that morning, working toward an advanced degree for the space shuttle programs benefit. All of our class was called into the other room to watch an event developing on the TV. It was obvious by the timing something was very wrong with the planned landing. Trying to piece bits of data together from the sound and images on the news, and from my background as a landing gear engineer and from my knowledge directly of this missions launch videos. I felt in my guts a hole in the wing, near the left gear well had allowed the wing to be torn off.
    Voicing this to my classmates and teacher was very difficult to express. Some were skeptical, some felt it was far to early to have such a conclusion. For me, the rest of the details were just a matter of time and significant effort. I lead a review of all preparations that went into the mechanical systems pre-launch to be presented to the Columbia Review Team. It was a tedious task, made more difficult be the knowledge i held inside. My teachers were astonished when the final results were revealed and i was so accurate in my call within hours.
    It was a struggle to think, even if the hole was observed before landing that nothing could have been done to save the crew. I was one of four lead engineers for a Space Shuttle at KSC. This event and the subsequent reviews left me empty of the joy i had previously had for 20 years working daily on the hardware. I moved into a more academic position in the program for my remaining years.


  3. Mike…the profound sense of shock and grief you share in these words is humbling to contemplate. Prayers for peace and comfort for all those who experienced this tragic moment in such personal ways.


  4. I was living in Huntsville in 2003. The night before I remember thinking I needed to set the alarm because NASA TV would have coverage of Columbia’s return. I overslept the landing time so I expected to turn on the TV and see the post-landing coverage. I was shocked and heartbroken to see the reports about the breakup of Columbia over Texas with the loss of the crew. Being the home of the Marshall Space Flight Center, the local paper, the Huntsville Times, devoted a great amount of coverage to this tragedy. It was depressing to find out that an overlooked issue, foam from the ET, was the culprit. The tragic losses experienced by NASA haven’t been from unavoidable incidents or acts of god. We seem to lose a crew every generation to human error and hubris. The crews of Apollo I, Challenger and Discovery all paid the ultimate price. It is my fervent hope that NASA and the human spaceflight community never forget those painful lessons and that we do not experience a reoccurrence of such failed oversight in the future. In this way, we will honor the loss of those who gave their lives in service to humanity.


  5. I was filling in for the other Assistant Lunch Director (ALD) who was on leave that week. I was not assigned to STS-107 launch, and got to watch it outside, a rare opportunity. On that Saturday morning of landing, I arrived at the LCC about 6am and looked after our landing preparations in the Firing Room. KSC controls the convoy and initial securing of the Orbiter upon landing. KSC takes control of the vehicle after the crew departs from the vehicle. The Launch Director and I talked before he left for the runway. As his duty is to meet the crew upon landing and support the NASA leadership. As ALD my duty was to make sure we were prepared to takeover control of the orbiter after landing. Most vehicle systems folks in the Firing Room are in monitor mode for entry and landing. I too had set up the displays and monitored systems while listening into CapCom and the Flight Director channels during entry. I settled in to my position a little after 7am and waiting for the call for entry. Weather was wonderful and everything was set for the first attempt to KSC with a landing at 9:13am ET. During early entry there were a couple ‘funnies’ with some measurements, but soon there were some interesting measurement readings on the LH side of the vehicle. The Flight Ops folks do a super job tracking everything on the vehicle and keeping a high situational awareness posture during entry. As the time approached 9am, there were now numerous readings on the LH side of the vehicle that were not per a standard profile. Some in the landing gear area, as I heard from the conversation on the Flight Director loop. It was about that time I thought something was very different about this entry. Within just a few moments, it seemed data had gone stale, and comm with the orbiter seemed loss. I thought it must had been intermittent com and nothing more. But the long range tracking cameras around the Cape did not pick up anything, and the orbiter and crew should have been almost overhead. Silence! Way too long of silence. I knew something was very wrong. The constant call from CapCom to the Columbia crew rang with no return. My throat swelled up. The Firing Room was silent for what seemed forever. I realized she, Columbia was not landing at KSC, but I had no clue where she was or her crew. After the expected landing time, we started the ‘contingency condition’ operations. Pre-planned procedures in case of a contingency. Most of our KSC procedures were for accidents on or near the runway, or emergencies post well stop. After a few minutes, the Launch Director called me and asked what I knew. I told him we saw numerous anomalous readings on the LH side of the orbiter in the wing area, then spotty com and then nothing. He thanked me and said the NASA leadership were coming back to the LCC. He told me to be ready for a very long day. Flashes of my time on console as an engineer back during STS-51L raced through my head. Not again I thought!


  6. 2003, waking up one Saturday morning, turning on my TV in Ohio to watch the coverage of the shuttle landing. There was nothing, then the news reports began to filter in. I had been following the flight for a few days already because I had just made a friend down in Cocoa Beach and she rekindled my desire to work for NASA (It didn’t pan out. Sometimes wanting something hard enough, and doing everything right, doesn’t mean you’ll get the slot. Hardest truth there is) and was wanting to see how the landing would go. Instead of watching a landing, I saw the debris falling out of the sky.

    Over the next few weeks, I stumbled upon the cause, more or less. Possible hole in the wing. Based upon when the sensors went out and where. In our science class, as part of the lesson, we had to use the process of deduction to establish a hypothesis for why the shuttle broke up.

    I was right, but I didn’t know it for another few months.

    Ever since then, I’ve kept an STS-107 patch with me, along with a few other NASA mementos. When this book comes out, it will go onto the shelf. Thanks for the Article.


  7. Couldnt have described t
    his better. My mind was already implementing contingency plans when I didn’t hear the sonic booms. One of the saddest days I can remember.


  8. As one of the 79 Rapid Response Team members from KSC that responded, I never realized how this tragedy would affect me even today. The dead silence of not hearing the sonic “boom” “boom” was the saddest moment of my life.


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