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.
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