At the National Air and Space Museum

Mike and I were invited to speak at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) on February 12. While I always feel honored to speak to groups, this venue held a special place in my heart. I worked as a volunteer tour guide at the NASM back in the summers of 1971 and 1972, while I was a student in high school. I can’t tell you how excited I was to be back again in the capacity of a subject matter expert!

We began our Washington, DC weekend with a signing at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, on Sunday, February 11. The Udvar-Hazy Center’s vast hangar holds planes and space vehicles that are too large to display in a more traditional museum. Here you’ll find everything from a World War I “Spad” to the B-29 Enola Gay that dropped the Hiroshima bomb to a Concorde SST to an SR-71 to the space shuttle Discovery!

Mike and I walked around Discovery before our book signing. Mike remarked that the last time he stood under Discovery, she was still radiating heat from re-entry. That was after the conclusion of the STS-133 mission on March 9, 2011.

I was fascinated to hear Mike point out several things that I might not have otherwise noticed. For example, take a look at the discolored streaks marked by the arrows in the photo below. Those give you an indication of the angle of attack—how steeply “nose-up” the space shuttle flies when it is re-entering the atmosphere.

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Mike and me with Discovery, February 11, 2018. (Jonathan Ward photo)

Mike also pointed out to me some of the newer, high-density “FRCI” insulation tiles on various spots along the orbiter. These newer-technology tiles replaced some tiles along the orbiter’s belly and under its wings. You can see some of them in the photo above, as they are darker black than the older tiles.

I never cease to be amazed at how large a vehcile the space shuttle orbiter was—and Mike points out that it was the smallest part of the shuttle “stack” at launch.

It’s doubly hard to imagine that a one-pound piece of foam could bring down such a mighty ship, as it did with Columbia.

As a longtime resident of Northern Virginia, before I moved to North Carolina seven years ago, I really enjoyed seeing many friends of mine who came by to say hi at the museum. My son and daughter also brought their families to share the day with me. My middle granddaughter Samantha wore her astronaut garb and she fit right in!

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My family! My wife Jane and me; granddaughters Molly (pink coat), astronaut Samantha, and baby Charlotte; my daughter Rosey (dark coat) and her husband Jason; and my son Ken (blue shirt) and his wife Valerie. And Mike off in the corner, hopelessly outnumbered.

That night, we met for dinner with former shuttle commander Pam Melroy and Robert Hanley of NASA. Pam was in charge of the Columbia crew module reconstruction effort back in 2003, and she was instrumental in writing the crew survivability report that was key to several important equipment redesigns for future crewed spacecraft. Robert was a member of the Vehicle Integration Test Team in 2003, and he also played a very important role in the crew module reconstruction. Both Pam and Robert were key contributors for Bringing Columbia Home, and although I’d spoken with them extensively on the phone, I’d never met them in person.

Astronauts always have tons of wonderful stories to relate! I was thrilled to hear Pam give us some peaks behind the scenes of what it was like to work as a “Cape Crusader” to prepare shuttles for other crews, as well as her own experiences during missions. For example, she said that you get used to making very small and very slow movements when you’re in zero-G; she said you could always tell who the rookie astronauts were because they were covered with bruises after the first day or two. But it was critical for the shuttle’s commander and pilot to prepare for the larger, more forceful actions that would be needed to control the shuttle during reentry. So the pilots had a hand controller hooked to a laptop that enabled them to simulate the actual hand and arm motions required for reentry and landing beginning a day before the end of the mission. Pam said she really needed that reminder, because she blew the first simulated landing!

Pam also mentioned that she always had a particularly hard time adjusting from zero-G back to Earth’s gravity. It was doubly hard for her when she had to fly the shuttle back home as commander when “my gyros were pegged” and she felt physically awful from the transition back to gravity.

Robert had been the personal interface between Columbia‘s crew and the vehicle team on the ground at Kennedy. He shared some wonderful reminiscences—touching and funny—of his time with the crew of STS-107.

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Not looking too bad, considering we had just spent 3-1/2 hours eating, drinking, and talking at Maggiano’s! Mike, “Pambo,” Robert, and me. 

Monday, February 12 was our day at the NASM’s main building on Independence Avenue in Washington, DC. We were hosted by Dr. Valerie Neal, chair of the Smithsonian’s Space History Department and curator of the NASM’s space artifacts. Mike taped a brief segment with Marty Kelsey for the Smithsonian’s STEM-in-30 program, talking about how the slidewire escape system worked at the launch pad. Mike also taped a short segment for middle school students about his educational and career path and what he liked about his job.

Then it was time for the “What’s New in Aerospace?” program, hosted by Dr. Neal. I can’t describe for you how amazing it felt to be in that wonderful space, with my family in the front row of the audience—and my guidance counselor from high school sitting right behind them! I hadn’t seen her in person for 35 years, but we have kept in touch since 1974. She was instrumental in helping me sort out my educational path when I was a confused teenager, and even after I went off to college. It was such an honor to have her there to share the culmination of my life’s work (so far).

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Mike flashes a “thumbs up” to a colleague just before we go live.

I can’t believe how fast the program time flew by. Dr. Neal’s easygoing demeanor made this feel much more like a conversation with a friend than a presentation to a worldwide audience. It seemed like we were just scratching the surface of our stories about the recovery effort, and suddenly we saw the PA holding up a sign that it was 2:28 pm, meaning the show was only supposed to go another two minutes longer! There was so much more we wanted to talk about, but no time in which to do it.

Afterward, we learned that over 3,600 people had watched the program on Facebook Live! And the recording of the show is now posted here for your viewing pleasure.

I should also point out that the Smithsonian asked us to write a blog post for their website about the Columbia accident and its aftermath, and you can find it at this link.

We signed books at the NASM gift shop afterward. It’s always a pleasure to sign books for people who are interested in learning more about the story, and it’s always interesting to hear what parts of the book people found most absorbing. It’s sometimes difficult for authors to judge how their book will resonate with people, especially in a book like this that has technical aspects but also deeply emotional moments. As Mike says about the reconstruction, “If you can separate out the emotions, it was a fascinating engineering exercise…but you can’t separate out the emotions.”

 

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After the signing, we met up with former Shuttle Test Director Al Sofge and his wife Suzanne, a retired director from NOAA. Mike, his wife Charlotte, and Al and Suzanne shared a lot of laughs about the life of a test director during the shuttle program. Mike noted that Al was notorious for walking so briskly through the hallways that he created a gust of wind when he strode by. People gave the strength of that wind gust the unit of measure “1 Al.” If he was in a hurry for something particularly important, he might create a gust of 1.2 Al or even 1.4 Al! We also talked about the recent SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch and possible paths that NASA and the commercial crew companies might take.

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Charlotte and Mike Leinbach, and Suzanne and Al Sofge (Jonathan Ward photo)

All too quickly, our time in DC was over. We said our goodbyes at our hotel in Virginia this morning, and laughed when we said—seriously—”See you tomorrow in Florida!” We have two more signings on Thursday, February 15 in the KSC area.

Stay tuned!

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Future astronaut Samantha. What will she be flying in 20 years? (Ken Ward photo)

Author: Jonathan Ward

Jonathan Ward is an author of books on the history of American manned spaceflight. He also serves as an adjunct executive coach at the Center for Creative Leadership.

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