Returning to a New Normal

As the work in the reconstruction hangar wound down and people gradually returned to their pre-accident jobs, we found ourselves being re-integrated back into a sort of ‘new normal’.

The atmosphere was different, the work itself was different, and the Shuttle was likely on borrowed time. Combine this new normal with the still-present emotional response to the Columbia accident, and you get a workforce with more questions than we could answer, more concern for their futures than confidence—people more in need of direction than ever.

Those of us in leadership and management positions had lots to do dealing with the ongoing CAIB investigation. We were concerned about what it was going to take to get us ready to fly again, debating changes to the External Tank, Orbiter, and other systems. But by far, the most important thing we had to do was to lay out the future for the workforce. The difficulty was that the future was anything but clear for months to come.

Many months.

We needed to stay together as a team despite having no firm game plan. And while everyone understood the uncertainty, it was still an extremely unusual feeling. It would clear up after a couple more months. We would fly again to fulfill international agreements and finish the International Space Station (ISS). But when would we fly again? Would layoffs be coming in the interim? And then once we got back in business, how long would the Shuttle continue in operation? We had originally envisioned flying until 2020, but that was likely to be cut short once ISS assembly was completed.

Open and honest communication throughout all organizations and at all levels became even more important than usual. While we were short on answers, we acknowledged it—and the folks appreciated the candor.

Personally, I thought it was very important to begin to look forward as soon as practical. Not as soon as possible, but as soon as it made sense to do so. In May, 2003 I asked a few close team members what they thought of getting back into launch countdown simulations soon. The responses were split about 50-50. I really wanted to do it to accomplish two main objectives. First, we needed to maintain our proficiency for the inevitable return to flight. Secondly, it would demonstrate to the launch team and to the rest of the processing team that we really were going to fly again. People knew when the team went into training for the day. It was obvious.

So I asked the simulation team to begin to develop a series of training sessions to begin as soon as they could. And on June 1, exactly 4 months after the accident, the Shuttle Launch Team was back together, doing what we did best.

The feeling in the Firing Room that day was unusual to be sure. It was a mix of somber and joy. Reflection and anticipation. But it felt right, too. The “rust” was virtually non-existent, and the team performed exceptionally well.

firing room console
Firing Room 4 launch console, with an open countdown procedure manual from the STS-135 mission. (Photo by Jonathan Ward)

It turned out to be exactly the right thing to do and at the right time. We held sims approximately every six weeks thereafter.


As the return to flight plan firmed up, numerous other training sessions were held—Mission Management Team sims, NASA HQ contingency sims, launch sims, landing sims, etc. Everyone got to participate, and rightfully so—because we were going to fly the Shuttle again.


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 “Returning to a New Normal”

  1. I wonder if the Columbia accident didn’t happen, would the shuttles still be flying, or was NASA ready to move on to sending astronauts beyond LEO?


    1. Hi Fred, before the accident, NASA was planning to keep the Shuttle fleet flying until 2020. Even though the orbiters’ airframes were built to fly 100 missions, NASA did not plan to fly nearly that many more missions. In my personal opinion, once the International Space Station assembly was complete, the Shuttle’s overall mission would have been to rotate crews, service the Station, and bring up and down the occasional experiment. If NASA was serious about expanding past low Earth orbit, the budget realities would have required cutting back on Shuttle missions. –Jonathan


    2. The Shuttles would likely be flying to this day. Prior to the accident we were deep into the planning to fly the fleet to at least 2020. Columbia, for example, was going to be modified to allow flying her to the ISS. The airlock would have been moved aft into the Payload Bay like the other Orbiters and outfitted with the ISS docking hardware. This, along with some needed weight reductions, would have permitted her to fly missions to the Station. All Orbiters would have been sent through lengthy inspection and mod periods to get to 2020 — similar to the Orbiter Modification and Development Periods, but more involved. Remember, the Orbiters were originally designed to fly 100 times each, though it would have taken much longer in the number of years than first envisioned. But 100 each. Given the fleet leader had but 39 missions (Discovery), the system could easily fly to 2020 with some TLC and upgrades. That was the plan in 2003 at least.


      1. I am curious as to how much more weight could have been shaved off Ov102? I believe after her last mod, Columbia weighed about a 1000 pounds less than before.
        Do you anticipate a 4-5 flights per year if the program had gotten to 2020? I assume some of the upgrades that were shelved after STS-107 would have gone ahead?


      2. Honestly, I forget the weight reduction target we would have attempted but the comparable weights of Columbia vs Discovery is one way to ballpark it. Discovery was usually stated to be 6870 lbs lighter than Columbia upon initial delivery. How many flights? Difficult to say. The Orbiters would have been used for ISS flights plus others not manifested but achievable only using their tremendous capabilities. Another HST mission for instance? Maybe. As for future mods, yes, we would have continued to upgrade the fleet with various safety and performance changes. Like the B-52, the Orbiters looked “original” on the outside but inside were anything but.


      3. One of the weight saving aspects of Columbia’s “diet” would have been to remove the OEX recorder and some of its associated instrumentation, which turned out to be critical to helping solve the puzzle of Columbia’s demise. Another key change was to move Columbia’s airlock to the outside of the crew module (i.e., into the payload bay), as had been done for the other orbiters, so that Columbia could dock with the ISS.


  2. Wish things had been much different. The Shuttles should have been leveraged to assemble interplanetary spacecraft on orbit. Big rockets are great, but we had one already. Even Shuttle C made more sense than wiping everything out and starting from scatch with the pieces of different programs.


  3. Cant wait for the book, absolutely LOVED the Kennedy space centre tour, what an amazing insight. Thank you so much. Wendy from Wales.


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