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.

First Advance Review for the Book

Mike and I have been working on our book for nearly two years now. The manuscript goes to our editor at Skyhorse Publishing on March 15. Everything is on track for the book to be released around Christmas this year.

We sent a courtesy copy of the manuscript recently to Sean O’Keefe, who was NASA Administrator at the time of the Columbia accident. Sean was an early and enthusiastic supporter of our project when we kicked it off, and he is very pleased with the results:

Mike and Jonathan have done a brilliant job capturing the depth of emotion and human engagement of what has been covered by others only as a technical investigative treatment. In doing so, they have made the story very personal for the thousands of people who invested themselves in this critical chapter of space exploration history. This is a valuable contribution about a defining moment that demonstrates NASA’s resolve and the selfless generosity of the American spirit.

—Sean O’Keefe, former NASA Administrator

We can’t wait to share this story with you!

Wildland Fire Crews to the Rescue

Within two weeks of the Columbia accident, an intense search effort by NASA, the US Forest Service, the Texas Forest Service, the FBI, the National Guard, the Texas Department of Public Safety, local law enforcement officers, and hundreds of volunteers located the remains of Columbia‘s crew in Sabine County, Texas.

Meanwhile, in the Persian Gulf, seven thousand miles away from the pine thickets of East Texas, the US was gearing up for the opening of another war front in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The National Guard was pulled within a few days of the last crew member being located.

The immediate urgency of the search operation was significantly reduced. NASA and the EPA had located and cleared many of the hazardous materials that had fallen to the ground from the shuttle—tanks with hypergolic propellants, pyrotechnic charges, and the like.

And yet, tens of thousands of pieces of debris still remained on the ground in a path more than 250 miles long and 10 miles wide, stretching from near Dallas to Ft. Polk, Louisiana. NASA still had no firm evidence about what had caused the accident; there were still many possible failure scenarios on the fault tree.

The spring “green up” would be coming within a month or two. Once that occurred, the underbrush would become impassable to ground search teams. And it was unreasonable to expect the small towns along the debris corridor to endure the disruption and hardship of supporting  a large number of searchers for a prolonged time. Although there were many volunteers who would gladly have continued working in the search, the NASA and FEMA leaders in Lufkin resolved not to put civilians in harm’s way for what was now a debris salvage operation.

So how could such a huge expanse of land be cleared quickly?

Mark Stanford of the Texas Forest Service and Marc Rounsaville of the US Forest Service made a proposal to NASA and FEMA: Use US Forest Service Incident Management Teams (IMTs) supported by wild land fire crews to run the search. Stanford and Rounsaville had actually proposed this more than a week earlier, but idea hadn’t taken hold. Now, it seemed intriguing.

National IMTs come from all over the United States. They are trained to deal with many types of complex “all-hazard” incidents, ranging from wildfires to hurricanes to the response to the World Trade Center attacks. IMTs deploy as completely self-contained units, with their own logistical support, and can be on site within days. They would be supported by hundreds of fire crews, each composed of twenty able-bodied men and women who were already skilled in the techniques of grid searching. They would only need to be trained in what to look for.

Astronauts Dom Gorie and Jerry Ross, who were helping to manage the debris search for NASA, asked how many people could be brought in. Stanford said he could have 1,000 people on site within a matter of days. Gorie and Ross immediately asked, “How about a thousand more?” Stanford said it could be done. “How about another thousand?” It was possible, but might take a few extra days.

Gorie was impressed. He said, “It was miraculous. I had no idea that anything like this could be generated just for this effort.”

Calculations showed that search lines of people stretched five to ten feet apart were likely to find at least 75 percent of all objects six inches square or larger in the debris field. Ground searchers would cover every square foot of an area three miles on either side of the center line of the debris corridor. Air crews in government-contracted helicopters would search another two miles on each side of the ground search corridor. This would theoretically enable NASA to recover an amazing 95 percent of the debris on the ground.

And the operation could be completed by April 15.

NASA and FEMA gave the approval to get the operation underway by the last week of February, 2003. The Texas Forest Service would manage the overall effort. There would be two months of an all-out push to find and recover the rest of Columbia‘s debris.

Ultimately, nearly 22,000 men and women were involved in this ground search.

We will hear much more about this operation in the coming weeks.

nac-arena
The Nacagoches Rodeo Arena becomes a “tent city” of wild land fire crew searchers.

Reconstruction Begins

Just a few days after the Columbia accident, NASA’s management discussed where and how to reconstruct the debris from the ship that was being found in Texas and Louisiana. Telemetry from Columbia cut off more than 30 seconds before the accident, and the ship’s Orbital Experiments (OEX) recorder—akin to an airplane’s black box—might not have made it to the ground. There was a chance that the debris could provide clues about the cause of the accident and how the shuttle broke up.

On February 3, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe and his deputy, Bill Readdy, announced that Kennedy Space Center would be the site for reconstructing Columbia. Steve Altemus from the launch team volunteered immediately to set up and lead the day-to-day operations. Mike Leinbach was named to head the overall reconstruction effort, as the “up and out manager” a few days later.

The Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) hangar at the southeast end of the Shuttle Landing Facility runway was a perfect location—convenient, secure, and big enough for the task. NASA quickly negotiated a lease for the hangar—which is owned by Space Florida, even though it’s on KSC grounds—and got to work setting it up.

rlv-reconstruction-hangar
The RLV hangar (foreground) at the southeast end of the Shuttle Landing Facility. (NASA photo)

The NTSB and Boeing Air Safety provided guidance in laying out a grid. NASA would “peel open” the orbiter so that its external surfaces were lying face-up on the hangar floor. The dimensions on the floor grid were 10% larger than real life, to give examiners room to walk around between the pieces of debris and examine them from all angles. NASA set up the outline of the orbiter as if the shuttle had been towed into the hangar nose-first.

 

Placing items relative to each other on the grid as they would have been on the orbiter enabled researchers to find patterns that might point to the cause of the accident, as opposed to damage that occurred after the vehicle broke up.

reconstruction-hangar-layout
The floor plan of the RLV Hangar.

Even though EPA and NASA were decontaminating the debris as it was collected in the field, NASA needed to plan for the possibility that some pieces of debris might come back with toxic hypergolic propellant residue. A decontamination area was set up near the receiving area. NASA also eventually used a second hangar—adjacent to the Apollo/Saturn V Visitors Center—to store large components made of “friable” materials that could cause respiratory problems if their particles or fibers were inhaled. This included sections of the shuttle’s payload bay doors and composite-overwrapped pressure vessels.

 

NASA set up a walled-off room at one side of the hangar. Here, astronaut Pam Melroy and her team of engineers and technicians would be responsible for reconstructing Columbia‘s crew module in three dimensions.

Materials for internal systems (power, hydraulics, miscellaneous plumbing, etc.) and the Spacehab experiments were stored in bread racks on the sides of the hangar.

Everything would be photographed, barcoded, and logged into a database when it entered the hangar. GPS coordinates had been taken for every piece recovered in the field. As the reconstruction team positively identified various components, they could use this information to target searchers to areas where critical items might be found.

NASA set up the hangar, established the operating procedures, and staffed the reconstruction positions within 10 days.

The first two truckloads of material arrived from Barksdale Air Force Base on February 14, the same day Mike Leinbach returned to KSC from leading the Rapid Response Team at Barksdale. Trucks brought more debris every other day for the next several weeks, and would continue arriving regularly until the last shipment on May 6.

KSC security special agents escorted every shipment, accompanied by representatives of other NASA centers, who wished to participate in the honor of bringing Columbia home one final time.

The hangar operated with two shifts per day, six days a week, with about 150 personnel per shift, as people began the massive job of identifying and studying tens of thousands of pieces of Columbia‘s debris.

debris-and-tire-03-11-2003-ksc-03pd-0638
By March 11, 2003—less than a month after hangar operations began—nearly 34,000 pieces of debris were in the hangar, totaling 43,200 pounds, or roughly 19% of Columbia‘s dry weight. (NASA photo KSC-03pd-0638)

This is the first of many articles in the coming months about the reconstruction activities.

The Second Week of the Recovery

NASA and the country held memorial services for Columbia‘s crew beginning with a service at Johnson Space Center on February 4. The next day, a service was held at Washington DC’s National Cathedral. On February 7, NASA leaders gathered on the Shuttle Landing Facility runway at Kennedy Space Center. Columbia‘s first pilot, astronaut Robert Crippen, delivered a moving eulogy to Columbia and her crew.

NASA’s press release of February 5 stated that remains of all seven Columbia crew members had been returned to Dover Air Force Base. That was factually correct, but not complete information. What the release did not say was that two of the crew were still missing. Up to 1,600 Forest Service personnel, National Guard troops, employees of the Texas Department of Public Safety, and volunteers combed the woods of Sabine County over the weekend of February 8 and 9 in a desperate search for the crew. Cold rain, sleet, and miserable conditions plagued the searchers.

On February 10, one of the National Guard units located the remains of the sixth of Columbia‘s crew near Toledo Bend Reservoir. Remains of the seventh and final crew member were found the next day. The sense of elation and relief felt by the searchers can’t be adequately described. Local resident Mike Alexander, a volunteer searcher since the day after the accident, broke into tears when he heard the announcement. “I just started crying out there in the woods,” he said. “I couldn’t help it. I thought, ‘We got closure now.'”

Volunteers in Sabine County had provided almost all of the food and shelter for the searchers. It was impossible to determine precisely how much food had been donated or how many thousand meals had been served at Hemphill’s VFW hall. Best estimates were that this relatively small community and a handful of volunteers had prepared and served 30,000 to 50,000 meals in two weeks. The community had donated over $620,000 in services to the recovery—at no cost to the federal or state government.

“It’s just people helping people—that’s what this small town is about,” said Roger Gay, Hemphill VFW’s commander. “Everybody likes to help everybody else, and they don’t expect anything from it. It was an occurrence that happened, and we dealt with it the best way we knew how.”

NASA’s Dave King summed up, “The people of East Texas made you proud to be an American, because they sacrificed and gave everything they had to try to help us. It was unbelievable what they did for us.”

Elsewhere in the 250-mile-long corridor where Columbia‘s wreckage came to Earth, hundreds of United Space Alliance and NASA personnel from Kennedy Space Center, along with representatives of the EPA, were working with local authorities to investigate debris sightings, check the pieces for contamination with hypergolic propellants, and then bring the items back to collection centers. The debris being found ranged from pieces of the wing to items from the crew module.

On February 7, searchers near Palestine, Texas found a videotape cassette, one of many that had at least partially survived the accident. Astronaut Ron Garan collected the tapes and flew them on a T-38 to Washington, DC, where he inspected them at the NTSB’s headquarters. Most were blank or were data tapes. However, one caused him to freeze when he started playing it.

It was the cockpit video of Columbia‘s reentry.

“The hair stood up on the back of my neck,” Garan said, “because we didn’t know how long the video was going to last or what it was going to show.” To his relief, the tape ended several minutes before the first sign of trouble.

NASA publicly released the video on February 28. The tape showed Columbia’s crew happy, being professional, and enjoying the ride. They were passing the camera around, smiling at each other, and remarking on the sight of the glowing plasma surrounding the orbiter. They were obviously unaware that anything was wrong with their ship.

Barksdale AFB and Lufkin, Texas

NASA’s contingency plans swung into action within minutes of the accident. An hour later, Administrator Sean O’Keefe named Dave King—deputy director at Marshall Spaceflight Center—to head the recovery of Columbia and her crew. At about the same time, FEMA told Scott Wells to head from Jonesboro, Arkansas to Lufkin, Texas, where the FBI was already starting to try to put its hands around the accident. Someone from the US Attorney’s Office in Lufkin secured the used of the town’s Civic Arena for use as a command center. King flew to Lufkin, which became the nexus of the federal response to the Columbia accident for the next three months.

Meanwhile, Dave Whittle from Johnson Space Center, who was designated to head NASA’s Mishap Investigation Team, looked for a secure site where he could coordinate the logistics for the remains of the crew and the debris from the ship. He identified Barksdale Air Force Base, near Shreveport, as a suitable site. Barksdale was home of the Air Force’s 2nd Bomb Wing. Its B-52s were preparing for the imminent invasion of Iraq.

The first 79 members of Kennedy’s Rapid Response Team, led by Mike Leinbach, deployed to Barksdale on the evening of February 1 and set up shop in “Nose Dock 6” to support Whittle in the debris recovery effort. Over the next several days, several hundred more people would deploy from Kennedy to Barksdale and then to the field.

If the number of teams seems confusing, this is a simplified list. NASA named fourteen official teams and working groups within the first few hours of the accident for its own internal purposes and to support the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB). This was in addition to representatives from EPA, FBI, NTSB, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the US Coast Guard—ultimately over 450 federal, state, and local agencies and organizations—that responded to the accident.

By the evening of February 1—still less than twelve hours after the accident—the Lufkin Civic Center was a maelstrom of activity. Hundreds of “Type-A” leaders from the various agencies staked out space, set up their command centers, and tried to figure out how to help. To the untrained eye, it appeared to be absolute chaos.

Mark Stanford from the Texas Forest Service was assigned by his manager to implement the Incident Command System at Lufkin. A veteran of many “all-risk” type of incidents, Stanford knew when he walked in the door at the Civic Center that it would take two to three days for order to emerge from the chaos. This was a normal part of the process. Rather than trying to assert his authority, he had learned a tactic for gaining the trust of the leaders: “Find someone who appears to be in charge. Ask him or her what three things are causing them the biggest headaches, then go fix those things. Then you’ll be a valued member of the team.”

One of the most amazing outcomes of the Columbia accident was the remarkable level of cooperation between agencies that developed over the next several days. There were no turf battles. The Incident Command System provided a framework with clear command and reporting structures that allowed each agency to contribute in the areas where it could be most effective.

But it would take several days for FEMA and NASA to begin to get a handle on what was going on.

On the morning of February 2, the NTSB told Dave Whittle’s team at Barksdale that they estimated that no more than 5 to 10 percent of the shuttle would have survived reentry. KSC’s Ed Mango looked at the map on the wall—already populated with hundreds of pushpins marking phoned-in debris sightings—and knew that things didn’t add up. Mango, along with astronauts Jerry Ross and Dom Gorie, drove to Lufkin to investigate first-hand. Gorie made some calls and secured the use of four Army National Guard helicopters to scout the debris field, the extent of which was still unknown.

Mango took one helicopter to Chireno, Texas, where someone had reported finding a tire in their field. How could a piece of rubber survive a hypersonic breakup and reentry? It seemed incredible. The landowner then told Mango that something else had landed in the adjacent farm. Mango found it.

It was a locker from Columbia‘s crew module—and most of its contents were still intact.

Meanwhile, Jerry Ross flew to Louisiana to check out an unusual sighting near Ft. Polk. People had heard loud sonic booms. A US Forest Service team drove around the area to check things out. They passed a water-filled puddle and then noticed: mud was splashed forty feet high on the surrounding trees.

This was not a puddle. It was an impact crater. Ross instantly recognized part of a shuttle engine powerhead poking above the water in the hole.

The national news media and volunteer searchers swelled the towns in East Texas. The population of Hemphill, Texas doubled almost overnight as people came to help with the search. By the end of the second day, searchers had found the remains of two more of Columbia‘s crew. The next day, two more crew members were located. Hopes ran high that the last two crew members would be found soon.

Next time: The CAIB

civic-center
The Salvation Army provided food for the hundreds of command center personnel at the Lufkin Civic Center. (Photo by Jan Amen)

The Sky Is Falling

February 1, 8:05 a.m. CST
Deep East Texas

While the team at Kennedy Space Center wondered where Columbia was, the citizens of Deep East Texas wondered what terrible disaster was being visited upon them from the sky. It was the supreme moment of parallel confusion.

People were waking up to a chilly, foggy Saturday morning.  Starting just after 8 a.m., the ground began shaking and the air was filled with a sound that was impossible to describe. A continuous cavalcade of staccato booms and blasts lasted several minutes. Houses shook to their foundations. Windows vibrated so violently that people thought they would break.

In Sabine County, US Forest Service law officer Doug Hamilton was convinced it was Judgment Day. He opened the front door of his house, prepared to meet Jesus.

Less than a year and a half after the attacks of September 11, 2001, timber sale forester Greg Cohrs wondered if a terrorist nuclear blast had destroyed Houston or New Orleans.

In the small town of Hemphill, near the border with Louisiana, children and their parents were gathered in the barn of the youth arena for the first-day weigh-in for the county’s livestock show. The open-sided building began to shudder and shake as the sound of “sonic booms times one thousand” tore the air. Elementary school teacher Sunny Whittington ran outside and saw dozens of smoke trails—some corkscrewing across the sky, others continuing straight. Her husband speculated that two planes has collided above the town.

Some people heard sounds like helicopter blades, as pieces of metal whirled through the air and hit the ground around them. Dogs ran in circles, barking at the sky.

Fishermen on Toledo Bend Reservoir saw something that appeared to be the size of a compact car hit the water at high speed. The ensuing wave nearly swamped their boat.

Sabine County Sheriff Tom Maddox was in his office in Hemphill. The building shook so hard that he thought the roof of the jail collapsed. Almost immediately afterward, all of his phone lines lit up. One person reported a train derailment at one end of the county. Another reported a plane crash. Yet another said that the natural gas pipeline traversing the county had exploded. What the heck was going on?

Unknown to most residents at the moment, the space shuttle Columbia, traveling at Mach 12 and more than 180,000 feet in altitude, had disintegrated at about 8:00 in a “catastrophic event” over Palestine, Texas. Most citizens were not even aware that a shuttle mission was in progress that day.

For the next half hour, debris from the ship—and the remains of her crew—rained down along a path 250 miles long and 20 miles wide, stretching from near Dallas to Fort Polk, Louisiana.

The constant thunderous noise heard by the residents was caused by more than 80,000 pieces of the shuttle, each breaking the sound barrier and creating its own sonic boom as it fell to the ground.

Within half an hour, word spread about news reports that Columbia had crashed.

The town of Nacogdoches, 60 miles west of Hemphill, was in the direct path of the disintegrating shuttle. Metallic debris was coming down everywhere around the town.

Law enforcement began responding to debris sightings. Word came from NASA that the material might be contaminated with toxic fuels. The location of everything found was to be GPS recorded if possible, with items left in place for subsequent collection.

By noon that first day, the remains of a Columbia crew member had been located. Mark Kelly was the first NASA astronaut on the scene. Along with Maddox, FBI special agent Terry Lane, and Hemphill Baptist pastor “Brother Fred” Raney, they conducted a short service for the fallen astronaut. For the next two weeks, a NASA astronaut, Maddox, an FBI special agent, and Raney would be at the recovery of each of Columbia‘s crew and perform the solemn service at the “chapel in the woods.”

Meanwhile, an Incident Command Post was  established at Hemphill’s volunteer fire department. Billy Ted Smith, the emergency management coordinator for the East Texas Mutual Aid Association, shared the role of incident commander with Sheriff Maddox for the Sabine, Jasper, and Newton County area.

Greg Cohrs was called in and tasked with organizing the response to the hundreds of reports that were pouring into the fire station. As the day wore on, the situation became more chaotic, as concerned citizens sidetracked the volunteers who were attempting to respond to the debris reports. Cohrs eventually restored order and began planning a more methodical response to the situation.

As evening came, Cohrs had plotted what he believed was the centerline of the debris field through Sabine County. He would organize searches for Columbia‘s crew beginning at daybreak the next morning.

Next time: Barksdale and Lufkin

etoile-vfd-on-103-site-a
The Etoile (Texas) Volunteer Fire Department responds to the first confirmed sighting of Columbia debris in their community, February 1, 2003. (Photo by Jan Amen)

Getting Ready for Reentry

The final meeting of the Mission Management Team (MMT) during Columbia‘s STS-107 mission was held on Thursday, January 30, 2003.

Everything seemed to be going well. The biggest headache was the continued degradation of the Water Pump Package, which was a crucial part of the heat exchanger on board the shuttle. A breakdown in the Spacehab module’s dehumidifier early in the flight, combined with the effects of the balky heat exchanger running, required the crew to actively manage the environmental systems in the ship to keep the cabin comfortable.

The crew, divided into a Red Team and a Blue Team, had completed most of their Spacehab work. A few final experiments were underway, while the results of others were being stowed for the return to Earth.

On the ground, the Structures Working Group was verifying that Columbia‘s weight was acceptable. At a projected “downweight” of 234,011 pounds (106,146 kg), Columbia would be the heaviest space shuttle ever to return from orbit.

Some people wondered if the extra weight—which could translate to extra heat during reentry—might overly stress the thermal protection system, if it had been damaged by the foam strike during launch. Someone even suggested tossing the Spacehab module overboard to reduce weight and heat. That drastic measure was neither possible nor taken seriously.

The MMT minutes showed that Kennedy Space Center was planning to gather the handheld cameras and external tank films as soon as Columbia landed. Someone would fly the cameras and films immediately—aboard the Shuttle Training Aircraft—to Marshall Spaceflight Center for analysis.

As on all other missions, an astronaut had been assigned to photograph Columbia‘s external tank as it separated from the ship right after the vehicle reached space. Such pictures were typically downlinked to the ground at the end of the first day’s operations. That never happened with STS-107. NASA never got to see how large the piece of foam was that struck the ship or exactly where it came from.

The handheld and ship-mounted cameras on Columbia became high-priority search targets during the recovery effort after the accident. Parts of one of the cameras that might have recorded the external tank’s separation were found on the shore of the Toledo Bend Reservoir. Neither the body of that camera nor its film were ever recovered.

The projected weather for February 1, landing day, looked good both at Kennedy Space Center and Edwards Air Force Base. Since Kennedy’s weather looked favorable for at least four days, the recommendation was made not to activate the Edwards landing team for the moment.

The MMT wrapped up its meeting. They agreed that no further MMT meetings were required during the mission.

In the back rooms, some engineers were still very worried. They kicked around worst-case scenarios. What if heat penetrated the landing gear wheel well during reentry? Could one or more tires be deflated? Could there be other damage that might threaten a safe return?

Next time: Landing Day

s107e05220-columbia-red-team-sleep
Columbia’s “Red Team” members prepare for their sleep period in the mid-deck bunks, January 20, 2003. From left: Laurel Clark, Rick Husband, and Kalpana Chawla. The unoccupied bunk is for Ilan Ramon, who was probably taking the photograph. (NASA photo S107E05220)

The Foam Strike

Columbia‘s launch on January 16, 2003 appeared to be smooth and uneventful. The shuttle reached orbit as planned and the crew immediately began preparing to operate the experiments in the Spacehab double module in the payload bay.

Later in the day, the imagery analysis team began analyzing the films from the tracking cameras that monitored Columbia‘s ascent. One of the cameras had not worked at all, and another was out of focus. However, another camera showed what appeared to be a large chunk of foam falling off the external tank and impacting the orbiter’s left wing 81.7 seconds into the flight.

Ann Micklos represented the thermal protection system team during the first viewing of the launch films. She said, “People’s jaws dropped. You could have heard a pin drop when we saw the foam strike. We watched it again and again and again.”

No one could tell whether underside of the wing or the wing’s leading edge bore the brunt of the impact. No one had ever seen such a large piece of foam hit the orbiter before.

The nearest precedent was ironically only four months earlier, on the launch of STS-112 in October 2002. When the reusable solid rocket boosters were towed to port after their retrieval from the Atlantic, someone noticed a large dent in the metal ring that attached the left booster to the external tank. What caused that?

Analysts examined the images taken of the ET took when Atlantis jettisoned the tank. A piece of insulating foam the size of a laser printer cartridge box had broken off of the external tank at the left bipod ramp—the structure that attaches the orbiter’s nose to the tank. The foam impacted the attachment ring at a relative speed of about 500 mph and created a deep dent in the solid metal.

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Photo of missing foam on the external tank of STS-112. Columbia‘s ET shed a larger piece of foam from the same area. (NASA photo)

The STS-112 impact was mentioned in the flight readiness review for the next mission— STS-113—but it was not classified as a safety of flight issue. “More than 100 External Tanks have flown with only 3 documented instances of significant foam loss on a bipod ramp,” the report said. Without a deep and thorough discussion of the issue and possible ramifications, the reviewers cleared the tank was cleared to fly “as-is.”

The issue was not even discussed at the flight readiness review for STS-107.

It was an example of the normalization of deviance attitude that had doomed Challenger and had now become part of NASA’s culture once again. In essence, managers felt that although foam loss was not meeting specifications, it had never caused a significant problem before. Therefore, it was safe to continue flying.

Now, a piece almost twice that size of the one that damaged STS-112’s booster had broken off of Columbia‘s tank and hit the shuttle’s wing.

In their briefing to the Mission Management Team on January 17, the day after the launch, the video analysis team noted that the strike had occurred. However, since there were so many unknowns, the issue was sent back for further study. The meeting minutes did not even mention the foam strike.

…from the crew perspective this was a good launch and there were no issues to report…The launch film revealed no significant items.

The next MMT meeting was scheduled for Tuesday, January 21.

Next time: Imagery in orbit