On January 26, 2018 I had the distinct honor of being one of several guests in a panel discussions entitled, “Columbia—Lessons and Legends of Recovery.” The panel was produced by Michael “Chach” Ciannilli, head of NASA’s Apollo Challenger Columbia Lessons Learned Program, and it was held in Kennedy Space Center’s Training Auditorium. Several hundred people attended; indeed, it was standing room only!
Chach opened the meeting with a vivid visual image of how the thousands of volunteers and workers from more than one hundred agencies transformed what had been a very dark day into something with a brighter meaning. Chach said that a few glimmers of light in that initial darkness came together to produce a few rays of light, and as the days progressed and more people became involved, those rays came together to form a beams of light, and eventually those beams gathered into a powerful beacon that guided Columbia and her crew home one final time.
KSC Director Bob Cabana spoke next, recalling how the STS-107 mission was his first as head of the Astronaut Office. He had been on the Astrovan with the crew as they went to the launch pad on January 16, 2003. He was at the runway waiting for them to come home on February 1. And it was a short time after they failed to arrive that he had to inform their families that the crew had perished. Cabana said he hopes no one at NASA will ever have to do something like that again.
Mike Leinbach spoke next, setting the stage for the accident and the early phases of recovery and reconstruction. Mike was followed by Dave King, former Marshall Space Flight Center Director, who led NASA’s efforts to recover Columbia‘s crew and the vehicle’s debris. King said that until we interviewed him for the book, he had rarely spoken to anyone about his experiences in the recovery, and that this was one of the first times he had ever spoken about it publicly.
Following King’s remarks was a short video tribute to the crew of Columbia. I produced the video for this event, and you can find it at this link. The music is as song “Sixteen Minutes from Home,” by Chach’s nephew Kyle Breese.
The next hour was a panel discussion. Included were Greg Cohrs of the USDA Forest Service (who was instrumental in leading the search for Columbia’s crew in Sabine County, Texas), Gerry Schumann (NASA’s Program Manager for Institutional Safety), Dave King, Mike Leinbach, Chach, and myself. We covered a wide range of topics ranging from where we each were when we learned of the accident to the lessons we learned and what we think the American public needs to know.
Most deeply touching to me was hearing senior NASA leaders say that the accident strengthened their resolve to make sure everyone has a voice and to speak up whenever something doesn’t feel right—not to assume that “smart people somewhere must already be looking at this.”
Greg Cohrs and I both provided “outside” perspectives on leadership and communications cultural issues. Greg pointed out that the Forest Service had faced very similar issues in how hard it was for unpleasant information to make it to the attention of management, but the Service was making strides to turn that around. I noted that it is easy for management to say that they want open debate, but that it takes extra effort by leaders to insure that there is no hint of intimidation or retribution if someone brings up difficult subjects.
Mike Leinbach strongly recommended that everyone in the audience read both the Rogers Commission report on the Challenger accident and the CAIB report on the Columbia accident, and then read about how NASA responded to both sets of recommendations. “When faced with a decision about how to proceed,” he said, “I hope you’ll do it the way we did after Columbia.” By that, he meant examining institutional and technical flaws with open discussion and debate, and learning from mistakes rather than treating an accident as an embarrassment to be buried and forgotten.
An audience question and answer session ensued, followed by a meet-and-greet after the program ended. What a thrill it was to be part of this discussion and to relax with some of the participants at Brix in Titusville afterward!