The Stafford-Covey Return-to-Flight Task Group

International treaty required the United States to complete the core assembly of the International Space Station, up through the installation of Node 2 (later called the Harmony module) as soon as possible. NASA had previously committed to the US Congress that Node 2—onto which the European Space Agency’s Columbus module and the Japanese Kibo module would be berthed—would be launched by February 2004.

While meeting that date was clearly impossible after the Columbia accident, NASA was still compelled to complete its share of the work on the ISS as soon as possible. There were still many flights needed to complete the ISS’s central truss and expand its solar power system before Node 2 could be installed. None of that work was possible without the shuttle. The modules were already built, but there was no other way to get them into space and support the spacewalks necessary to install them. NASA therefore had to get the shuttle flying again.

In May 2003, three months after the accident and before the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) had completed its investigation, NASA expected to resume shuttle operations by the end of 2003 or early 2004. NASA wanted to be sure that it was not letting schedule and political pressure force the agency into taking undue risks.

In early May, NASA Deputy Administrator Fred Gregory announced that former astronaut Lt. General Thomas Stafford had been requested to head a group to provide an independent assessment of NASA’s return-to-flight plans. On May 22, 2003, NASA named former shuttle astronaut Richard Covey to report to Stafford and lead a working group to oversee and test NASA’s compliance with the CAIB’s findings and recommendations. Some of the members of the panel included former Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig, Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders (who was also the retired CEO of General Dynamics), and former NASA Launch Director Bob Sieck, among a host of other government and industry executives and technical experts.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said that NASA would only decide that it was safe to fly the shuttle again when the Administrator had the Stafford-Covey Task Group’s independent confirmation that NASA had fully complied with the CAIB’s recommendations.

Stafford Covey group jsc2003e56782
NASA’s Joy Huff shows a space shuttle leading edge subsystems panel to members of the Stafford-Covey Task Group in August 2003. From left: Dr. Amy Donahue, David Lengyel, Dr. Katherine Clark, Richard Covey, and William Wegner. (NASA photo)

The Task Group went into full operation once the CAIB’s report was issued in August 2003. The CAIB made 15 specific recommendations that NASA needed to address before the shuttle could return to flight. Many of those findings required extensive changes to hardware, procedures, and management practices.

NASA’s hopes of flying again in 2003 or 2004 quickly were overtaken by the realization that there was a long and difficult road ahead. By December 2003, the planned launch date had moved to September 2004. However, an interim report by the Stafford-Covey Task Group that month said that “progress on the many recommendations is uneven” and that it was too soon to say whether that new launch date was possible. The Task Group’s interim report also chided NASA for not being timely in responding to some requests for information.

It was not comfortable information for O’Keefe to hear. However, it meant that the Task Group was doing its job of being “an umpire calling balls and strikes in a zone defined by the CAIB recommendations.”

The Task Group issued additional interim reports in April 2004 and January 2005, noting progress as well as areas that still required attention.

By June 2005, NASA had closed out all but three of the CAIB’s recommendations. The Task Group believed that the three remaining recommendations were so challenging that NASA could not comply completely with the intent of the CAIB. For example, the most contentious open item was a vaguely-worded recommendation that NASA have the ability to repair the “widest possible range of damage” when the shuttle was on orbit.

In July 2005, the Task Group was satisfied that NASA had done everything in its power to make the shuttle as safe as possible to fly again, and they told the Administrator that NASA had met the intent of the CAIB’s requirements for returning to flight. The Task Group’s final report made it clear, however, that it was up to the NASA Administrator and his staff—not the CAIB or the Task Group—to determine if the remaining risk was low enough to allow the shuttle to fly.

Shuttle Discovery launched on the STS-114 mission on July 26, 2005. Although the external tank unexpectedly (alarmingly) shed foam again, the safety inspection and repair techniques that NASA developed in the wake of the CAIB report ensured that the crew was able to complete their mission and return safely to Earth.

Columbia’s Reconstructed Debris Tells a Compelling Story

Throughout February, March, and April of 2003, truckloads of Columbia’s debris retrieved in East Texas arrived at the reconstruction hangar at Kennedy Space Center. In the first month or so, several truckloads arrived every week. By April, those deliveries were beginning to tail off as searchers completed clearing the debris field.

Workers in the field knew that NASA was conducting important analyses on the material they’d found and shipped to KSC, but they had no concept of the scope of the operation until they saw the reconstruction hangar themselves. NASA’s Mike Ciannilli (who now runs NASA’s Columbia Recovery Office and the Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia Lessons Learned Program) worked as an aerial spotter in East Texas during the recovery period. He said, “We had no clue what was going on at KSC. The first time I went to the hangar, I was blown out of the water. I was just mesmerized by it.”

By the end of April, the debris had begun to tell a very clear story about Columbia’s demise. Almost all of the debris showed the effects of extreme heat, oxidation, and mechanical stress to varying degrees. But what damage happened before the ship broke apart, and what happened afterward? Painstaking forensic analysis was required to gradually tease apart the sequence of the accident.

Tile Tables

Reconstruction workers initially used a computer graphics package (originally developed to track the process of waterproofing the tiles during launch processing) to plot which of the insulating tiles had been recovered from Columbia’s wings. It quickly became obvious that the software was inadequate to provide the information needed for the forensic analysis. Which tiles were damaged? How were they damaged? Were there larger-scale patterns of burns, pitting, or other damage?

The solution was to lay the tiles out on a large, elevated table on which was drawn the outline of the wing and the location and part number of every single one of the 2,800 silica tiles on the left wing. As tiles were recovered and identified (sometimes based only on a few millimeters of thickness), engineers lay them in place on the table.

Patterns quickly emerged.

Micklos tile table
Thermal protection system lead engineer Ann Micklos places a tile on the left wing tile table. (Photo courtesy Ann Micklos)

The carrier panel tiles, which formed the closeout between the leading edge and the rest of the wing, showed where the breach in the wing occurred. The carrier panel tiles behind Panel 9 on the leading edge were slumped and coated with metallic deposits from structures in the interior of the wing.

Burn patterns showed that plasma entering the breach in the wing at thousands of miles per hour pressurized the wing cavity and blew out vents in the upper and lower surfaces of the wing.

As the hot plasma entered and melted its way through the wing’s interior, its heat caused the adhesive that held the tiles onto the wing surface to fail. Those tiles—designed to take heat from the outside surfaces, not from where they were glued onto the ship—peeled off of the wing.

The wing was clearly baking from the inside out.

Finally, the tiles found farthest west in the debris field—those which had come off the earliest in the moments leading to the breakup, as the shuttle was flying from west to east across Texas—were all from the left wing, and all from the area behind leading edge panels 8 and 9.

Leading Edge Frames

Boeing’s Mike Gordon and NASA structures engineer Lyle Davis spent many long hours examining the recovered pieces of the reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) panels on Columbia’s wing’s leading edges. These pieces ranged in size from larger than one square foot to smaller than a thumbnail.

Since the RCC panels were U-shaped and several feet long, it was impractical to lay them out two-dimensionally. Kennedy Space Center’s shops constructed a set of clear Lexan frames that held the pieces of each RCC panel and its underlying structure, allowing people to see in three dimensions what the front edge of the wing looked like.

KSC-03pd-1556 05-14-2003 Leinbach and RCC Lexan media briefing
Columbia reconstruction director Mike Leinbach briefs the media about the wing leading edge displays, May 14, 2003. (NASA photo)

The RCC frames also told a compelling story about the accident. Panels 1 though 7, and from Panel 10 outboard, were fractured from forces after the shuttle disintegrated. Their metallic attachment fittings were still partially intact.

However, at Panels 8 and 9, no metallic fittings were recovered. The stainless steel support structure—which melts at 2,500°F—had melted away and was deposited as slag onto the interior of adjacent panels on the wing. The retrieved pieces of RCC from Panels 8 and 9 were knife-edged and heavily eroded, providing evidence that plasma at over 3,000°F was acting as a blowtorch at high pressure on those panels for a prolonged period. This was the only place on the wing where this pattern was observed.

Materials scientists analyzed the cross-section of the slag deposits inside the left wing panels. This analysis showed what the metals were (insulating blankets, aluminum from wing spars, Inconel and steel from fittings, etc.) and how the deposits were laid down. It clearly told the story of the wing’s failure in time sequence.

As with the tiles, the location of the leading edge components in the debris field also gave the sequence of the accident. The leading edge components from the middle to the tip of the left wing (Panels 8 to 22) were found farthest west, between Dallas and Palestine. Pieces of the leading edge of the left wing closest to the shuttle’s fuselage (Panels 1 to 7) were found farther east, between Palestine and Nacogdoches. The right wing leading edge pieces were all found farther east. This provided evidence that the left wing failed before the right wing, with the most likely point of failure being at Panels 8 and 9.

Proof Positive

NASA now had the evidence to prove how Columbia broke up.

NASA announced in early May that only one single failure scenario explained all of the evidence contained in the debris, the OEX recorder, and the telemetry received in Houston. Something—most likely the piece of foam from the external tank during ascent to orbit—caused a breach in the leading edge of the left wing, allowing plasma to penetrate the wing during reentry and erode it from the inside out.

Whether the foam actually punctured the RCC at the leading edge, or whether it pushed the spacers apart and created a gap in the panels, will never be conclusively known.

The last truckload of debris arrived at the reconstruction hangar on May 6. Wreckage that had been strewn over thousands of square miles of forest and field—pieces that had been carefully collected by tens of thousands of searchers working in tough conditions for three months—was all here in this one place. The twisted, burned, and shattered debris had told an important story, one that would have been impossible to write without the collective efforts of so many dedicated people in East Texas and Louisiana and of the nation’s wildland firefighting teams.

“Each piece was evidence of how hard Columbia fought to come home to us,” astronaut Pam Melroy said. “We saw every recovered piece as a victory.” Every piece of debris moved the reconstruction team closer to their goal: We will find the problem, fix it, and move forward in their honor.

[Portions excerpted from “Bringing Columbia Home,” © 2017 by Mike Leinbach and Jonathan Ward.]

The Columbia Recovery Phase Ends

Thanks to the tireless and incredibly efficient efforts of the Texas Forest Service, the US Forest Service, FEMA, EPA, and NASA, recovery operations wrapped up at the end of April and beginning of May in 2003.

From the middle of February through the end of April, the Type 1 and Type 2 wildland fire crews from the US Forest Service walked every square foot of an area larger than the state of Rhode Island in their search for debris from Columbia. They painstakingly searched forests, fields, briar patches, farms, ranches, swamps. They dodged bulls, avoided snakes, endured heat and cold, suffered through hailstorms, scratched bug bites, steered clear of suspected meth labs, missed their families, and slept in tents during their two to three weeks in the field. Grid searches turned up thousands of pieces of shuttle material that on average was about one square inch—and in many cases, smaller than a fingernail.

Air crews  logged over 5,000 flight hours in their search efforts. Divers from the Navy, FBI, Houston Police Department, EPA, Texas Department of Public Safety, and the Galveston Police Department conducted more than 3,000 dives and spent more than 800 hours on the bottom of lakes searching for debris from Columbia. The overall water search effort covered twenty-three square miles of lake bed.

Nearly 25,000 men and women from almost every US state participated in the search operations. The combined effort was over 1.5 million man hours. Searchers recovered more than 84,700 pounds of material from Columbia, equal to about 38 percent of the vehicle’s landing weight. Most emotionally important, the remains of Columbia‘s crew had been recovered and returned to their loved ones.

It was the largest land search and recovery operation in United States history, and the first major incident under the jurisdiction of the new Department of Homeland Security.

Animated graphic showing the progress of the grid searches for Columbia‘s material along the 250-mile-long debris path from February through April 2003. (Courtesy Mark Stanford, Texas Forest Service)

The Palestine, Texas camp closed on April 18. A few days later, the Hemphill collection center closed. Search operations at the western end of the debris field continued for a few more weeks, until the number of pieces being recovered was less than one per grid. All ground operations in Texas ended on April 30, with the Nacogdoches camp closing on May 3 and the Corsicana camp closing the following day. Search operations moved to Utah on May 2 for eight days, as radar had tracked some objects falling off the shuttle during its flight over the state. However, no shuttle debris was ever recovered west of Littlefield, Texas.

 

NASA’s Space Flight Awareness organization sponsored a huge dinner at the Lufkin Civic Center on April 29 to celebrate the end of the search operations and to thank the local communities and agencies for their help. The scale of the event was impressive. NASA’s Ed Mango likened it to the celebration scene in the movie, The Right StuffJan Amen from the Texas Forest Service reported, “Dinner was steak and chicken, green beans, rice, rolls, salad, pie, all prepared by the Diboll Country Club. Free drinks flowed freely.”

It was the kind of party that only Texans know how to throw.

Banquet - The Crowd
Part of the crowd at the banquet in the Lufkin Civic Center on April 29, 2003. (Photo by Jan Amen)

Administrator Sean O’Keefe hosted the event for NASA, and Scott Wells spoke on behalf of FEMA. County judges and civic leaders from every county in East Texas were on hand. County Judge Jack Leath, Tom Maddox, Greg Cohrs, Roger and Belinda Gay, Marsha Cooper, and a host of other people represented Sabine County. Dignitaries from the various Native American Tribes and Nations attended. An astronaut sat at every table.

Astronaut Dom Gorie opened the ceremony with a heartfelt invocation that brought tears to the eyes of nearly everyone present. The Expedition Six crew sent a live video message from the International Space Station. A video about the Columbia crew followed.

O’Keefe and NASA’s Dave King, who was in charge of the recovery operation, presented plaques recognizing the nation’s appreciation for the contributions of the people at every table in the hall. The spouses of Columbia’s crew spoke of their gratitude to the people of East Texas for bringing their loved ones home again. Eileen Collins closed the ceremony on behalf of the next shuttle crew scheduled to fly in space.

Banquet - Evelyn Husband
Evelyn Husband, wife of Columbia’s Commander Rick Husband, conveys her thanks to the people of Texas. (Photo by Jan Amen)

It was a fitting and emotional close to a tumultuous three months. The people of East Texas had provided the nation and the world with an enduring lesson in how to handle a crisis with dignity, compassion, and competence. They met and worked side by side with astronauts, rocket scientists, engineers, technicians, and fire crews from across the country. In return, they had the satisfaction of knowing that they had gone far beyond the call of duty in the hopes of returning the American shuttle fleet to flight again.

At the end of the evening, after Jan Amen dropped off her last load of astronauts and families at their hotels in Lufkin, she wrote to a friend, “I absolutely lost it. I squalled all the way back to Cudlipp like a big fat crybaby. I’m whooped!”

[Portions of this blog post are excerpted from Bringing Columbia Home, (c) 2017 by Mike Leinbach and Jonathan Ward.]

The Recovery Passes the Halfway Mark

At the beginning of April 2003, the search efforts for recovery of Columbia‘s debris passed the halfway mark.

From the time operations went into full swing at the end of the third week of February, the Texas Forest Service had overseen the mobilization of more than 12,200 men and women from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. These firefighters came from more than forty states and Puerto Rico.

April 1 ground search status
Firefighters came from nearly every US state and Puerto Rico to search for Columbia’s wreckage. This map shows the number of wild land firefighters and support staff deployed by each state as of April 1, 2003. 

They entered the recovery zone through a processing facility set up by the Texas Forest Service in Longview, Texas. After an orientation on what they were looking for and the hazards they might encounter, the fire crews and their supervisory Incident Management Teams were deployed to camps in Corsicana, Palestine, Nacogdoches, and Hemphill. These towns were spaced roughly fifty miles apart along the debris field. The crews then spent two to three weeks conducting grid searches in their assigned areas. Then they were rotated out and replaced by fresh crews.

Longview cots
Cots for transiting fire crews in the Longview staging camp. (Photo by Jan Amen)

Their efforts produced astonishing results. As of April 2, 2003, the crews had searched every foot of an area of 426,844 acres (667 square miles). They had recovered 65,730 pounds of material from Columbia, equal to about 29% of the vehicle’s weight. Their efforts were also being supplemented by 37 helicopters, 8 fixed-wing aircraft, and salvage divers and surface boats in Lake Nacogdoches and the Toledo Bend Reservoir.

In this first incident response by the newly-created Department of Homeland Security, FEMA coordinated the federal agencies and funded the operations. NASA managed the overall search and provided technical assistance. The Environmental Protection Agency identified and handled hazardous materials, and transported all materials recovered during the search. The Texas Forest Service coordinated the air and ground searches. The US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the National Park Service provided the majority of the search crews and equipment. The US Navy and Coast Guard conducted the water searches.

Those are just some of the lead agencies. More than ninety federal, state, and local government agencies assisted in some way with the aftermath of the Columbia accident.

It was on the surface a collaboration of unlikely partners, but each agency brought its core expertise to bear in the largest and most remarkable inter-agency operation ever conducted.

Astronaut Jerry Ross told me during an interview for the book that “people first and foremost need to understand the greatness of the United States and its citizens. The United Sates has an incredible wealth of capabilities. To see the energy and expertise and materials and technical capabilities that descended on Lufkin within hours of the accident was so reassuring.”

In times when we hear people complaining about “government incompetence,” it’s helpful to remember that agencies are made up of people. People—not faceless agencies—get the work done. And we need to know that our federal and state agencies are made up of a lot of motivated and dedicated people who want to see our country be successful.

“Their Mission Became Our Mission”

In East Texas, people make sure you are aware that nine people lost their lives as a result of the Columbia accident—the seven astronauts and two searchers.

Supplementing the massive ground search for Columbia‘s debris was an aerial search of the area on several miles on each side of the ground search corridor. The Texas Forest Service managed more than thirty contracted helicopters that were operating in the air over East Texas every day.

Pilots flew just above treetop level, as spotters searched for debris on the ground. The spotters generally included representatives from the Texas Forest Service, the US Forest Service, and NASA or its contractor United Space Alliance (USA).

The air searches were not without risk. Flying just above the treetops, there was often little room for a pilot to make an emergency landing if something went wrong. Makeshift power lines cropped up in strange places in the rural areas, posing hazards to air crews who attempted to land to pick up debris.

On the afternoon March 27, 2003, luck ran out for one of the air search crews. Pilot Jules “Buzz” Mier was flying his Bell 407 helicopter over the Angelina National Forest that day, accompanied by Charles Krenek of the Texas Forest Service in the front seat. In the rear of the helicopter were Matt Tschacher of the US Forest Service, Richard Lange from USA, and Ronnie Dale from NASA’s Safety and Process Assurance Branch at Kennedy Space Center.

Mier was an Army Vietnam veteran with thousands of hours of flight experience. He had a business operating air tours in the Grand Canyon. When he heard that the country needed experienced pilots for the Columbia search, he answered the call to service.

Krenek was a resident of Lufkin, Texas. He had twenty-six years of experience as an aviation specialist and a woodland firefighter. He was well-known and well-liked throughout East Texas.

Krenek-Mier crew
The helicopter crew on the day of the accident. From left: Matt Tschacher, Buzz Mier, Richard Lange, Ronnie Dale, and Charles Krenek. (Photo courtesy “Boo” Walker)

After a stop for lunch and refueling, Mier and his crew took off at 3:15 on Thursday, March 27 for their second search mission of the day. About an hour into the flight, the engine suddenly quit. Mier, flying just above the treetops over Ayish Bayou, had no options for autorotating to a safe landing. The helicopter crashed nose-first into the crown of an oak tree and plummeted to the ground. Mier and Krenek were killed instantly when the cockpit was crushed. The three men in the rear seat were all badly injured, but they all survived.

Local resident William Dickerson and his nephew were fishing in the area when they heard the helicopter go down. They helped the injured men from the helicopter and to the nearest road, and then went to call for help. US Forest Service law enforcement officer Doug Hamilton and Sabine County Sheriff Tom Maddox were among the first responders. After wading back through the swampy area to the crash site, they realized they could not bring out the bodies and Mier and Krenek without assistance.

Felix Holmes and Marsha Cooper of the US Forest Service brought a bulldozer and several all-terrain vehicles to the site. Holmes knocked down pine trees with his dozer to create a makeshift path for the ATVs.

East Texas was in shock after the accident, losing a “favorite son” in the search for Columbia. Despite the grief, no one voiced regrets or blame. Rather, the community regarded it as a sacrifice to an important undertaking. It proved that the people of East Texas were doing their utmost to help NASA return to flight, no matter the personal cost.

The motto that had been circulating since the early days of the recovery effort now seemed even more poignant. Their mission became our mission took on a much deeper meaning for the citizens of East Texas. They were now inextricably part of the Columbia story—their own blood mixed with the blood of NASA’s astronauts.

The crash caused an immediate stand-down in air searches while the NTSB and the participating agencies investigated the accident and reviewed search procedures. The cause was traced to a faulty fuel control unit. Search procedures were revised to improve safety and eliminate unnecessary risks. Searches would have to be from a higher altitude. There would be no more landing to pick up debris; searchers would call in GPS coordinates for ground teams to make recoveries. Finally, air operations would be concentrated farther west in the debris field, which as less heavily forested than the eastern portion.

Now that they had given the lives of one of their own men to the cause, it was more critical than ever to ensure that the task was worthwhile—that these two men and the crew of Columbia had not died in vain. And indeed, the air searches were very productive, eventually accounting for 65 percent of the shuttle debris that ended up on the grid in the reconstruction hangar. They helped solve the mystery of the accident.

[Please see this excellent article by Christopher Freeze for more technical information about the accident.]

Columbia’s “Black Box”

NASA established a list of “hot items” that it most wanted to find in the search and recovery of Columbia‘s debris. Many of these items were memory devices, items that might contain information about the state of the orbiter prior to the accident. Memory devices that NASA sought included the shuttle’s five general purpose computers, cameras, film, videotape, and one very special box – the Orbiter Experiments recorder, or OEX box. (This device was also known as the MADS recorder, short for Modular Auxiliary Data System.)

As the first spaceworthy orbiter, Columbia was instrumented with hundreds of sensors—strain gauges, temperature probes, and the like—to study the loads and stresses on the vehicle during ascent and reentry. These sensors fed into the OEX box, which recorded the data on magnetic tape. Columbia was the only orbiter with an OEX recorder. And quite coincidentally, the box was going to be removed after STS-107 in order to save weight as part of Columbia‘s refit to fly a supply mission to the International Space Station.

OEX before
Columbia‘s OEX recorder, as it looked before the accident. (NASA photo)

If NASA could find the OEX box or its data tape in the tens of thousands of pieces of debris that had landed across East Texas, the tape might solve the mystery of what caused the ship to disintegrate.

NASA sent the search leaders and debris collection center managers in Texas the photo shown above and asked them to keep their eyes open for this box. If it was found, they were to immediately call Dave Whittle, who was leading NASA’s Mishap Investigation Team.

On February 7, 2003, NASA asked Greg Cohrs, who was coordinating the US Forest Service’s search efforts in Sabine County, Texas, to provide a team for a special search in neighboring San Augustine County. The previous days’ searches in one area of San Augustine had turned up some gear that had been near the OEX box in Columbia‘s avionics bay. Unfortunately, the searchers did not find the box.

When the box failed to turn up after more than a month of ground searches, NASA feared that the box might have fallen into Toledo Bend reservoir, between Texas and Louisiana. The US Navy was already conducting sonar sweeps and dives in the reservoir, but had failed to find any debris. NASA asked them to concentrate in an area near the Texas shoreline in hopes that the OEX box might turn up.

On March 19, two US Forest Service contracted fire crews from Florida were grid-searching San Augustine County near Magnolia Church. Firefighter Jeremy Willoughby was searching in a pine stand on a gradual slope, when someone in the group spotted a metal box sitting on the ground near a small crater. They wrapped up the box in plastic sheeting, and it was placed in the back of the team’s collection truck.

Florida search crews on March 19 2003
Fire crews Florida 3 and 4 on March 19, 2003, near the site where the OEX recorder was found. (Jeremy Willoughby photo)

Making their rounds for the day, Greg Cohrs and FBI special agent Terry Lane stopped by Magnolia Church, which was a staging area for the day’s searches. They looked in the back of one of the pickup trucks and saw a box wrapped in plastic sheeting. Recognizing that it could be a very significant find, Cohrs and Lane took possession of the box and drove it to the NASA collection site at Hemphill.

Greg Breznik was running the site for NASA. He unwrapped the box. It was almost pristine. Although there were holes where connectors had been torn off, the rest of the box looked immaculate. He could even read the government property tag on it. Breznik phoned Dave Whittle, who said, “I want it on my desk now!”

Cohrs and Lane returned to the Florida crews to tell them the good news about what they had found. Willoughby said that his crew unanimously decided that they would celebrate the find as a group accomplishment, and that the person who found the box would not be named.

On the other side of the world, the US began the invasion of Iraq that evening. MSNBC broke into its war coverage briefly to announce that “Columbia‘s black box has been found.”

NASA sent the box to Imation Corp. in Minnesota to clean the tape. The box then came to Kennedy Space Center, where the tape was duplicated, and then the tape went to Houston for analysis. As hoped, the OEX tape contained information about the state of Columbia right up to the second when the orbiter broke apart. This data, combined with the telemetry received during the mission and the analysis of the orbiter’s debris, confirmed that plasma had entered the leading edge of the ship’s left wing and melted it from the inside.

After the reconstruction phase ended, the OEX recorder went to the Columbia Research and Preservation Office in the 16th floor of the Vehicle Assembly Building. Several years later, it was sent to Johnson Space Center, where it can be seen in one of the administration buildings.

OEX recorder and tape reels
The OEX recorder and tape reels in the Columbia Research and Preservation Office, February 1, 2004. (Photo courtesy Robert Pearlman/collectSPACE)

 

 

Columbia Accident Investigation Board Public Hearings Begin, March 6, 2003

One of NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe’s first actions after Columbia disintegrated on February 1, 2003 was to activate an independent investigative board. NASA had at least fourteen formal internal task forces and teams designated to respond to the accident and investigate technical issues. However, policy mandated the formation of an independent board after a significant incident and loss of the crew. This board named itself the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, or CAIB (pronounced kabe) soon after its first meeting.

O’Keefe asked Admiral Harold “Hal” Gehman to chair the board. Gehman had recently completed an investigation into the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole. Other members of the Board included leaders from the military, NASA, FAA, research institutions, and other experts.

One of the truisms of a catastrophic accident such as Columbia‘s destruction is that it is almost never due to a single piece of hardware failing. Complex systems like the space shuttle and commercial airplanes are designed and built with all sorts of fail-safe mechanisms and components. For example, if a guidance computer fails, there is a backup (and sometimes several) that can take over. History has shown repeatedly that it usually takes a cascading series of failures to cause the destruction of something like the space shuttle.

Those failures are not always mechanical. They are often compounded by breakdown of  processes and how the organizations and people work within the system.

Therefore, the CAIB was empowered to examine not only the physical causes of the accident, but also to look into any organizational, cultural, procedural, policy, design, or other factors that may have played a role.

So while NASA’s internal teams and task forces collected and analyzed the debris from the accident, looked into the telemetry that was received from Columbia in its final minutes, and ran checks on the history of the ship’s hardware, the CAIB interviewed personnel who were involved in various discussions and decisions prior to the accident.

The CAIB held the first of its public hearings on March 6, 2003. Space Shuttle Program Manager Ron Dittemore was one of the first to testify, and the CAIB questioned him at length about subject such as recent changes to program staffing that might have affected operational safety. Johnson Space Center director Jefferson Howell, like Dittemore, disagreed with any suggestion that NASA underestimated shuttle risks or that safety did not receive the highest possible emphasis. However, former Ames Research Center director Harry McDonald suggested that he believed NASA had moved too far toward considering the shuttles as “operational” vehicles rather than complex research and development spacecraft.

Testimony later in the week focused on issues such as whether the insulating foam on the shuttle’s external tank could absorb water and potentially freeze, making the foam heavier and thus more of a threat to the orbiter. Other witnesses spoke about the decision to fly two shuttle missions after Atlantis was struck by insulation on STS-112 in October 2002.

Although many of the points that were raised were difficult for NASA to hear, Administrator O’Keefe had made it abundantly clear that he wanted full and open cooperation with the investigation. The only chance NASA had of finding and fixing the issues that doomed Columbia was to bring everything out into the spotlight for intense scrutiny.

BoardPortrait

Members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. From left to right, seated: Scott Hubbard, Dr. James N. Hallock, Dr. Sally Ride, Board Chairman Admiral (retired) Hal Gehman, Steven Wallace, Dr. John Logsdon, Dr. Sheila Widnall. Standing from left to right: Dr. Douglas Osheroff, Maj. General John Barry, Rear Admiral Stephen Turcotte, Brig. General Duane Deal,  Maj. General Kenneth W. Hess, and Roger Tetrault.