Required Changes

A lot has been written about the recovery from the Columbia accident in terms of changes we needed to make to get back to flying the Shuttle again. In general, the changes fell into two categories. One bucket contained changes to hardware, the other were changes to management practices.

In the early summer of 2003, we didn’t know how much time we’d eventually have to make these changes—just that we’d take whatever time was necessary to get them done, and with the confidence we did them right. But based on the recovery from the Challenger accident of 1986, we figured we wouldn’t be flying again for a couple of years. Could be longer; could be a little quicker. But the charge to all of us was to get the work done correctly, first and foremost. Sort of like resolving a problem in the final throes of launch countdown – solve the problem first, then look up at the clock and see if you have any time left in which to launch.

That’s not to say we were lackadaisical about it. Hardly. We were well aware of the need to get flying again to the ISS. But once again, it was ‘schedule awareness’ vs ‘schedule pressure’. There was a difference from the time critical launch environment of course where technical problems were solved based solely on data, and bad decisions couldn’t be recalled. In the recovery period, lengthy, philosophical debates were fairly common. But decisions needed to be made and progress in the improvements needed to be real.

The foam loss problem on the external tank needed to be fixed. Adding the capabilities to inspect the Orbiter’s tiles and effect some level of repair prior to re-entry was also necessary. These were obviously the top two flight hardware upgrades undertaken. But each Project (Orbiter, ET, SRB, Ground Processing, etc.) was asked to essentially recertify their existing system as flight-worthy, or suggest upgrades aimed at improving safety margins. These suggestions would be debated at the Program-level change boards and either accepted for implementation (and funded) or not.

Changes weren’t too widespread for us at KSC and the Ground Processing directorate. For the most part, our work practices on the flight hardware were mature and adequate. Extra care was to be taken when working on the External Tank’s foam to avoid damage, but nothing too onerous.

One significant finding in the accident review that we were responsible for correcting was the inadequate ascent imagery. As you may recall, on Columbia‘s final launch one ground tracking camera was inoperable, another was out of focus, and the just sheer number of assets documenting the critical portion of ascent couldn’t guarantee the full suite of images necessary to help resolve issues. As a result, we undertook a complete review of the ‘imagery system’ composed of tracking video cameras, still photography, high-speed engineering film assets, and the Operational Television System (pad cameras). We needed to be sure we had enough visual documentation to address issues, and have confidence on launch day the assets were working and could ‘see’ the vehicle. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) even recommended we have Launch Commit Criteria (LCC) for the system. More on that in a moment.

In addition to improving the visible launch documentation we needed some sort of long-range tracking system that could detect issues long after ground-based cameras effectively lost sight of the vehicle. Later – the C-band radar system. Likewise, on-orbit imagery needed to be understood and policies firmed up to enlist help from the intelligence community if needed.

C-band radar dish
This 50-ft. C-band radar dish was installed near Haulover Canal north of the KSC launch complex, as one of three radar dishes used in the new Debris Radar System. The other two were on ships. (NASA photo)

For the sake of brevity, the final ground-based system we installed was one of guaranteeing adequate views at least through SRB separation, from three independent positions, and from both north of the pad and south of the pad. We needed close-in views, mid-length (2-5 miles), and longer-range views from 10 miles or beyond. No distance requirement was set, just that we had these three ‘zones’ covered. Obviously, siting the individual assets would be case-dependent. At least two cameras at each location added to the certainty of coverage. The status of each would be reported to the responsible system engineer on the launch team and relayed to us. They would be committed for launch during the hold at T-9 minutes.

What about the CAIB launch commit criteria requirement? What about clouds obstructing one or more views? What about night launches? Good questions.

The CAIB did not specify what type LCC they wanted, although in informal talks they were going after specific camera views and operability. Given the uncertainty of guaranteeing views, I opted to enact an LCC based solely on the system operating properly. The issue of adequate views (cloud coverage, one or more specific cameras being down, etc.) was left to judgment on launch day. That decision would be made jointly by me (as Launch Director) and the Mission Management Team chairperson. The CAIB accepted the idea, so we pressed on with buying and installing an elaborate collection of video and still cameras located north and south of the pad. And we installed a control system for the cameras close to or at the pad. It was that control system that had the LCC. On launch day, the pre-launch MMT chair and I would get information on the views we would get during ascent and would decide if we’d launch with anything less than the full complement.

We had a requirement to launch during the light of day for the Return to Flight mission. That mandate remained in place until we had confidence the foam loss issue was resolved, AND that the radar system could detect debris issues regardless of daylight. We relaxed the lighted-launch requirement starting with STS-116 in December 2006, the first night launch of a Shuttle since the Columbia accident.

The system proved to be a great addition to the safety for the astronauts and the vehicle. Never again would the vehicle be hidden from view during ascent. We had enough cameras to make up for one or two not working as designed and had all angles covered. Ground-based imagery never caused a scrub and always provided clear views of the vehicle – and plenty of them.

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 “Required Changes”

  1. Why no mention of the cameras added to the ET and forward and aft SRB positions.
    I believe these were most critical in viewing the wings and shuttle over the long range cameras.


    1. Good point – NASA had used an ET camera two missions prior to Columbia, but it was on the wrong side of the tank to capture the foam that was shed on that flight (STS-112). More cameras were added for the Return to Flight missions.


      1. If only the Congress had better funded the Shuttle program, there could have been more orbiters built and I would have upgraded shuttle Enterprise for use only as a rescue shuttle to be on the second launch pad. If Congress had also given the Apollo missions more money, (as I have read) there would have been pad LC39C.


    2. Yeah, as soon as it went live I thought more about the flight cameras. But in my piece I was really addressing only the ground based imagery upgrade. I agree 100% it doesn’t tell the entire story of the imagery improvements after the accident. Thanks for the good comment. The flight cameras were absolutely key in developing the complete re-entry vehicle health story


      1. Love your comments. I really do. In reverse order, my comments. The KSC Master Plan in the early days, had 5 launch pads in LC-39. A, B, plus C and D up the coast equally spaced as A and B, and E sort of between B and C but inland another mile or so. Those were sited in the 60s and 70s and are still on the books as far as I know. To build them would require three things I don’t see happening anytime soon. A program with a flight rate of sufficient frequency to require them, environmental permits ( not as easy now as in the 60s), and funding. But it’s a fact there were at least penciled in! Good idea about Enterprise bug ur was never designed to fly in space. She had her Aporoach and Landing Test requirements that she performed exceptionally well. To redesign and rebuild her for space flight isn’t quite realistic. Structurally, systems required, and the like said it was easier and less expensive to build Endeavour partially from spare parts than re-do Enterprise. But I appreciate the thought.


  2. For Mr. Leinbach,

    The only reason I mentioned upgrading Enterprise as just a rescue shuttle even though the costs would be prohibitive was that after Challenger was lost and Endeavor built from spares, it would have been prudent to have a rescue only shuttle, and since there were no more spares, wouldn’t it cost even more to build a brand new shuttle just for a rescue vehicle to be used for all flights (prior to ISS construction flights only)?

    It also would have been great to have more than one shuttle mission at a time. In the entire space program we only had two ships in orbit at the same time during the Gemini program.

    A really “mature” space program would have such capabilities. I suppose based on Science Fiction and the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, I do not think any nation on Earth or private enterprise will have the capabilities shown in the film 2001 even in to the next century as the pace of our space program has really become stagnant. Launching the SLS only every other year doesn’t make much sense cost and program wise that even is worse than Apollo which flew about every six months.

    I suppose if we didn’t have to “waste” so much money for the DOD preparing for wars we never will win (the US hasn’t really won one since WWII), it is a shame NASA cannot be given an adequate budget to really advance both human and robotic space missions.


    1. Enterprise was originally intended as a spaceflight vehicle, but design changes made that cost prohibitive. It supposedly saved about $100 million to convert the Structural Test Article into OV-099, Challenger. The availability of structural spares sped up the construction of Endeavour. An Ov-106 would have been nice, but was not approved. I also don’t see the point of effectively wasting a space shuttle orbiter designated only as a rescue vehicle. There was a procedure in place for the ISS to serve as a haven in case an orbiter was seriously damaged and could not return to Earth safely.
      NASA does not really compete with the DOD for funding. The money is placed in categories by law and the allocated to agencies. NASA is a fairly small agency by government standards. The military budget is FAR higher. Not a fair comparison, IMO.


      1. I was referring to all shuttle missions after Challenger but before Columbia accident.
        Despite the cost of “wasting” an orbiter for rescue missions, I am sure the astronauts of STS-107 Columbia and their families would have appreciated a rescue shuttle. Just as stripped down as possible to save lives of extraordinary people.


      2. Hi Fredric, I hope you saw our earlier blog on the rescue scenario. NASA had no definitive proof that Columbia was mortally wounded. Keeping a second shuttle at the ready to launch on demand would be tremendously expensive – in effect, you’d be processing two shuttle flights for every single launch. As it was, there wasn’t room in the Orbiter Processing Facilities for all the existing orbiters that had to be shuffled to meet the launch schedule. Building a rescue vehicle wouldn’t address all the possible loss-of-crew scenarios that could happen on ascent. The Columbia accident proved that the shuttle architecture was flawed and couldn’t be made acceptably safe. Nearly every astronaut I have spoken to said that they believed that if NASA continued to fly the shuttle, it was only a matter of time until there was another fatal accident. They were sorry to see the shuttle go, but they believed it had served its purpose and needed to be replaced by a safer technology.

        Liked by 1 person

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