The Rescue Scenario

Shortly after the accident, during the third week in February 2003, a few of us contemplated if a rescue mission of Columbia’s crew could have been conducted. If it could, what were the chances of success?

Under the guidance of Shuttle Program managers we were asked to quietly study it. We were to conduct our studies in part to satisfy our own curiosity and in part knowing the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) would no doubt ask us one day. The Flight Directors at Johnson Space Center (JSC) would do the on-orbit assessment, and I would do the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) operations assessment. The two would combine to answer the unfriendly—but necessary—question.

My part concluded that from a pure timing perspective, a rescue was theoretically possible. The result from JSC was the same: theoretically possible. But both required unrealistic assumptions and actions that were not consistent with the mission being flown, or usual program priorities or objectives.

Rescue would have involved having us launch Atlantis—next in line to fly—as soon as possible, rendezvous with Columbia, transfer the astronauts via some sort of tether to Atlantis, and come home. The crew of seven from Columbia would be aboard Atlantis with her rescue crew of four. Four of the crew members would have to ride home strapped to the deck; there were only seven seats on the orbiter. Columbia herself would then be guided to a ditching in the ocean.

At the time of the accident, Atlantis was almost ready to roll out of the Orbiter Processing Facility to the VAB. A full-court press to expedite that and get to the launch pad would be required. The Pad “flow” would be truncated to only those tasks required, the rest omitted to save time. Things like the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test and cryogenic loading simulation would be eliminated. Other required tasks would be done three shifts per day, seven days per week. Meanwhile, the rescue scenario flight plan would be developed at JSC.

Assuming no significant glitches, launch could have been as early as February 11. This also assumed no significant processing or launch delays occurred, including weather. That also assumed that Atlantis would not have her remote manipulator arm installed, which was almost certainly needed for a rescue mission. Installing the arm would have pushed the earliest launch date to February 13.

If everything went according to plan—and that was a BIG if—the rescue would have happened two days before Columbia‘s consumables ran out. Columbia would have been in orbit for almost a full month by then, two weeks longer than any previous Shuttle mission.

The key to the entire study was that consumables on board Columbia needed to preserved as much as possible, extending Columbia’s time on orbit awaiting Atlantis’ arrival. Food, water, etc. all needed to be stretched to the max. The limiting commodity however were the lithium hydroxide (LiOH) canisters needed to scrub carbon dioxide from the cabin air. Not food, not water, not power, but the ability to provide breathable air for Columbia’s crew.

The assumption made for the study was that we needed to put the crew on alert for extending LiOH no later than Day 4 of the mission. The crew would have had to go into a very low activity mode to keep their respiration as low as possible. This would have had the effect of terminating the mission’s objectives, effectively ending the reason for the mission. To do this would have been one of the unrealistic moves required. AND, to even get to this posture would have required either proof that the Orbiter was fatally damaged by that day, or assuming so. That was another unrealistic assumption, since the request for additional imagery didn’t occur until Day 6 of the mission, by which time it would already have been too late to conserve the consumables.

But when the two studies were combined, we saw that it would have been technically possible to rescue the crew. That’s the cold, data-driven answer. The truth is that the assumptions I mentioned above, and a few others, would have required extraordinary efforts in both ground and mission operations AND management decision making while we were lacking definitive damage information. All this would have been far outside the normal Shuttle practices at the time.

It should also be noted that the decision to actually launch the rescue mission would have been an extraordinary thing in and of itself. Would we commit a crew of four on Atlantis to rescue Columbia’s, crew possibly facing the same damaging foam loss during its launch? A tough decision to say the least, bigger than NASA alone could make. I believe the President would have had a role in that decision.

But it never got to the point that we’d find out.

No rescue mission was ever contemplated during Columbia’s time on orbit, let alone one early enough to give it a fighting chance of success. We just didn’t have the evidence to support making such a decision, and there was no realistic way in which we could have had that evidence by the time that decision needed to be made.

The CAIB asked us about the scenario in early May 2003. Admiral Gehman, a superior leader, intentionally waited to ask the question until some of the raw emotions had time to subside a little.

When we saw the analyses, there was no grumbling, but there was grief. We couldn’t save the ship. Columbia was doomed, no matter what. Maybe we could have saved the crew. But there were so many what-ifs and assumptions, so many things that had to go completely differently from the very first hours of the mission. Would it have been successful? I don’t know. But we never even had the chance to try.

As much as it hurt people to think about the remote possibility of saving Columbia’s crew, the study helped prompt discussions on how to save a future crew of a damaged shuttle. The studies led to the safe-haven scenario, in which damaged Orbiters could dock at the International Space Station to enable the crews to wait there for a later rescue mission.

KSC and JSC used the Columbia rescue scenario to design a one-time rescue mission that could back up the final Hubble servicing mission. After the successful completion of STS-121 in July 2006, proving that we’d finally solved the foam-shedding problem, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin formally approved the Hubble servicing mission.

On May 11, 2009 Atlantis was poised for launch to the Hubble from Pad 39A at Kennedy. Standing on Pad 39B two miles to the north was Endeavour, ready to go into orbit if there were any problems with Atlantis. For the first and only time, NASA had two shuttles in launch countdown simultaneously. We were ready to launch Endeavour one day after Atlantis if necessary. Tremendous dedication and work went into getting us to this dual launch posture. Fortunately—like many other things in the space business—this contingency capability was assured but never needed.

Atlantis’s flight went flawlessly, so the rescue mission never flew. Atlantis’ crew successfully prolonged Hubble’s life and upgraded its instrument package.

In a roundabout way, Columbia had once again contributed to the advancement of scientific discovery.

STS-125 and sts-400
On Pad A (foreground), Atlantis awaits launch for the STS-125 Hubble servicing mission, while Endeavour (STS-400) sits on Pad B for a possible rescue mission. (NASA/Troy Cryder)

It Bears Repeating

 

I am pleased to report that Jonathan and I submitted the manuscript for Bringing Columbia Home to our editor yesterday.

We’ve been working on this book for nearly two years. In fact, it was two years ago today that we first met, at the funeral of our mutual friend, Norm Carlson.

The past two months felt very much like “Press to MECO” as we went through multiple reviews and revisions to meet our submission date. And just like after a successful Shuttle launch, now I can catch my breath and take the luxury of a little time to pause and reflect on the process that got us to this point and what it means to me.

What was the most significant learning I had in the process of helping Jonathan research and write Bringing Columbia Home? By far, it was how so many American citizens came together so willingly to help us when we needed it most.

Call it what you like. I like ‘the American Spirit.’

We were all hurting from the loss of Columbia. Most of all, the crew families were devastated. No more needs to be said about them.

Those of us in the NASA community were stunned and hurting.

The folks in East Texas were shocked and felt the loss deeply from the very beginning.

The 25,000 people from across America that came together over the course of three months to recover the astronauts and debris came to feel the loss just as much, and as soon as they joined the effort. There was no ‘ramp up’ in emotions.

I’m certain other people around the world felt an emotional connection to the accident as well.

What those of us involved in the recovery and reconstruction shared was something very special. It was the NEED to help. I know the same happens in war, though I have never personally experienced it. It is a need to help your country and comrades. Unique to America? No, but certainly true about us. It is something to be proud of, and to share.

This is precisely why the book will shortly exist.

ALL Americans should know this story of our country’s spirit at its best. They deserve to know it. I believe it’s especially important now when it seems like bickering and divisiveness have become a sort of new norm in our country.

If there’s a message of hope in a story about the aftermath of a terrible national tragedy, it is that Americans are at their very core a compassionate, caring, and committed people who will rise to a challenge and accomplishing incredible things.

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!

Landing Day—Silence and Shock

(The following is the Preface to our upcoming book, “Bringing Columbia Home,” which will be published late this year.)

Kennedy Space Center
February 1, 2003

Twin sonic booms in rapid succession, one from the space shuttle’s nose and one from its vertical tail, were always the fanfare announcing the mighty spacecraft’s arrival. The timing of the phenomenon was determined by the immutable laws of physics. Three minutes and fifteen seconds before landing, as the shuttle glided toward the Kennedy Space Center, it dropped below the speed of sound and produced the double concussion. Loud and unmistakable, it could be heard up and down Florida’s Space Coast. This was our cue to start scanning the skies for a victorious space shuttle, descending toward us in the distance.

Columbia and her crew of seven astronauts were coming home from sixteen days in orbit. After six million miles circling the Earth, they had reentered the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean, crossed the California coast, and then flown over the Desert Southwest and Texas en route to Florida. These last few miles would be their victory lap in front of her astronaut crewmembers’ families and the KSC personnel who tended her on the ground.

As KSC’s launch director, I was one of the officials who would welcome Columbia home. At 9:12 this cool morning, we listened and waited for the thunderous sonic booms, like the percussion of an artillery volley. Oddly, the sounds were completely absent.

Over the loudspeaker feed from Mission Control, we heard repeated calls to the crew: “Columbia, Houston. Comm check.” Long moments of silence punctuated each call. “Columbia, Houston. UHF comm check.”

I found this confusing and alarming. I looked up at the clouds and turned to Wayne Hale, former ascent and entry flight director, and asked him, “What do you think?”

He thought for a moment and responded with a single word: “Beacons.”

That one word hit me hard. The astronauts’ orange launch and entry suits were equipped with radio beacons, in case the crew needed to bail out during a landing approach.

Hale clearly knew the crew was in trouble. He was already thinking about how to find them.

My God.

The landing countdown clock positioned between the runway and us counted down to zero. Then it began counting up. It always did this after shuttle landings, but we had never really paid attention to it, because there had always been a vehicle on the runway and that clock had become irrelevant.

The shuttle is never late. It simply cannot be.

Columbia wasn’t here. She could not have landed elsewhere along the route. She was somewhere between orbit and KSC, but we didn’t know where.

I tried to sort out my thoughts. Something was horribly wrong. An indescribably empty feeling swept over me. My position as launch director was one of knowledge and control. Now I had neither.

Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral have seen more than their share of launch disasters. A launch catastrophe is unmistakable—tremendous noise, a horrendous fireball, and smoking debris falling into the ocean. My mind flashed back to the frigid morning of January 28, 1986. I had seen Challenger lift off from pad 39B and disappear into a violent conflagration shortly afterward. I remember thinking that Challenger would emerge from the fireball, fly around, and land behind me at the Shuttle Landing Facility. But we never saw Challenger again. I recalled leaving the site with a few friends as debris and smoke trails continued to rain down into the Atlantic, just off the coast. It was a terrible thing to witness in person.

Today’s situation was completely different. Our emergency plans assumed that a landing problem would happen within sight of the runway. A failed landing attempt would be immediately obvious to everyone at the runway.

Today, there was nothing to see, nothing to hear. We had no idea what to do.

Columbia simply wasn’t here.

We all knew something awful must have happened to Columbia, but our senses could tell us nothing. The audio feed from Mission Control had gone eerily silent.

The breeze picked up. Low rippling clouds masked the sun. The quiet was broken only by a few cell phones that began ringing in the bleachers where spectators and the crew’s families were waiting. The astronauts in the ground support crew huddled briefly by the convoy command vehicle. Then they sprinted toward the family viewing stand.

I glanced over at Sean O’Keefe, NASA’s administrator. I could see he was clearly in shock. O’Keefe’s deputy, former astronaut Bill Readdy, stood at his side. Readdy looked me in the eye and asked, “Contingency?” Unable to speak, I simply nodded.

Readdy carried a notebook containing NASA’s agency-wide contingency plan for spaceflight emergencies. Ever the pragmatist, O’Keefe had ordered this plan updated within hours of his becoming administrator in late 2001. Now, barely one year later, the plan had to be activated. The procedures designated Readdy to make the official call. Readdy opened the book and told O’Keefe that he was declaring a spaceflight contingency.

Gathering my thoughts and trying to keep my emotions in check, I told the officials to meet me in my office back at the Launch Control Center, about two and one-half miles to the south. We could confer there in private and get more information about the situation.

KSC security personnel and astronaut escorts quickly led the crew’s families away from viewing stands to a bus that would take them to the privacy of the crew quarters. The other spectators—many of whom were friends of the crew or members of the crew’s extended families—were also ushered to waiting buses.

There was no announcement of what had happened, but everyone knew that it must be something dreadful. Few words were spoken. People wept and hugged each other as their initial emptiness slowly filled with grief.

In the utterly inadequate jargon of astronauts and space workers, this was going to be a bad day.

As I hustled back to my vehicle, I had no concept for just how long this horrible day would last—or how inspiring its aftermath would ultimately be.

(c) 2017 Mike Leinbach and Jonathan Ward

Tomorrow: The Sky Is Falling

572907-convoy-line-main_convoy_line
The landing convoy deploys to KSC’s Shuttle Landing Facility to greet a returning space shuttle (NASA/Ben Smegelsky, 2011)

Telling Columbia’s Story in “Real Time”

Time is a fascinating phenomenon. Setting aside discussions of special relativity, it’s pretty safe to say that objectively, time flows at the same rate every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year.

Subjectively, though, we perceive time’s passage as highly variable. It can zip past or drag on endlessly. Ask a ninth-grade student sitting in a boring class at 2:10 in the afternoon how long he feels it will be until school lets out, and he’ll say “forever.”

For us more senior folks, it’s a different story. I saw a post on Facebook the other day that said, “I was taking a surprise spelling test in tenth grade. I closed my eyes for a moment, and now I’m an old person.”

One of the challenges faced by an author of narrative non-fiction is how to capture the flow of time as perceived by the participants in the story, while contrasting that with what was actually going on in real time.

By the afternoon of the day of the Columbia accident, FEMA, the FBI, NASA, and the Texas Forest Service set up a command center in the Lufkin, Texas civic center. Mark Stanford led the TFS contingent. He found the windowless environment to be like the inside of a casino, with no cues as to what time it was. The frenetic, non-stop pace of responding to the emergency caused him to completely lose track of time. “I told someone I hadn’t slept in almost 72 hours,” he told me in an interview, “but then I learned that it was less than 24 hours since the accident.”

How do you write about less frantic periods? Stephen King insists that writers “leave out the boring parts.” Well, sometimes things just plain are boring. Days drag on while you wait for something to happen. Likewise, days melt into each other while you repeat the same process over and over, chipping away at the block of stone until the statue gradually appears. The writer must honor the work being done, somehow conveying the sense of tedium experienced by the participants, without also boring the reader!

Looking back over the first draft of the manuscript for Bringing Columbia Home, I see that we spent 20% of the words in the book describing the events in the 15 hours following the accident. The next two days take 10% of the book. The next two weeks take 15%. And the next two months account for 20% of the word count. That will give you some concept for the pace of activity in the recovery and reconstruction of Columbia.

And it’s interesting to note that the first day’s activities we describe are several hundred people reacting quickly to the crisis. But by the middle of the spring, it’s tens of thousands of people executing very methodical processes.

Going into the new year, Mike and I are going to use each week’s blog posts to highlight some of the events that were going on during the same time period in 2003. This weekly account over the period of a year will take us up to the release of Bringing Columbia Home and the 15th anniversary of the Columbia accident.

If you were a participant in the recovery and reconstruction—or even a bystander—we welcome you to share your recollections via comments on the blog pages.

We hope you will enjoy seeing this story unfold in real time.

We will also keep you informed on the progress of the book‘s publication, release date, book signings, etc.

Wishing you a very happy and prosperous New Year –

Jonathan and Mike

columbia_sts-109_preparing_for_launch
Columbia on the launch pad prior to the March 2002 STS-109 mission (NASA photo)

Interviews and truth

Bringing Columbia Home is my third book. Other than the obvious similarity with my other two books, in that it deals with the American space program, it shares another key element: it relies heavily on oral history and interviews.

I can’t adequately describe what a thrill it is to interview people who were on the scene during important times and events in history. Some people had “bigger” roles than others, consistent with their job titles or the scope of their responsibilities. However, events like the Columbia tragedy profoundly shaped people’s lives, no matter what their role or scope. Everyone who was involved has their truth about how the event and their reactions to it were turning points in their lives.

One question I like to ask in my interviews is: What did you learn about yourself in going through this experience? That never fails to make people reflect on the importance of what they did when they were put to the test. Many people break into tears when it suddenly strikes them how deeply they were affected by all that they went through in a critical period. I feel profoundly honored to be present with people as they recall such moments.

My last corporate job was as a consultant in organizational effectiveness and change. In big companies, it’s physically impossible to talk to everyone, but you also want to get as many perspectives as you can. My usual approach was to interview a “diagonal slice” of people in an organization—talk to a representative sample of people from all levels and all job functions within the organization I was studying.

In a situation like the Columbia accident, where there were 25,000 people directly involved in the search for the shuttle’s debris, and hundreds of people in the reconstruction hangar at KSC—not to mention the hundreds of thousands of people who were residents of the area where Columbia‘s debris came to Earth—I had to use a somewhat similar approach.

I did a quick tally of the interviewees for our book the other day, and here are some examples of the kinds of people I talked to:

  • Senior NASA officials (Administrator, senior staff, Center directors, etc.)
  • Senior officials from FBI, FEMA, US Forest Service, Texas Forest Service
  • 14 former astronauts
  • Managers, engineers, and technicians from NASA, Boeing, United Space Alliance, Spacehab, and other organizations
  • Consultant to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board
  • Forestry workers with the US Forest Service and Texas Forest Service
  • A County Judge, sheriffs, law enforcement officials, a special agent for the FBI, a city manager, and other local officials
  • Residents of Sabine County, Texas who volunteered as searchers or volunteered to help the recovery operations in other ways
  • A school principal and teacher
  • A Baptist minister and two funeral directors
  • Hotshot firefighters contracted by the US Forest Service
  • NASA and contractor engineers and technicians who deployed officially (and also unofficially) to assist in the search and recovery operations

All told, I’ve talked to about 100 participants, and I’m still talking to more. We have over 600,000 words of interview transcripts from conversations over the past 20 months. Obviously, we’ll soon reach the point where there isn’t time to include information for additional interviews, or we’ll never finish the book.

If you were involved in the Columbia search, recovery, or reconstruction, I strongly urge you to write down your memories! Mike and I would of course love to hear about your experiences. Feel free to contact us at the links on this site. We can’t guarantee that we will be able to use your stories in the book. However, we do vow to share the collective experiences either through this blog or some other means of preserving Columbia‘s history.

jonathan-with-marie-nelson
Jonathan with Mrs. Marie “Little Granny” Nelson, who fed and supported the searchers in Hemphill, Texas during the Columbia recovery. (Photo taken October 21, 2015 at the Patricia Huffman Smith “Remembering Columbia” Museum in Hemphill.)

15 Years

Why the book? Why now?

The short answers are, the story needs to be told, and, someone with discipline and writing ability is helping.

Jonathan and I met at Norm Carlson’s memorial service on March 14, 2015. A month later, we decided to collaborate to tell the untold piece of Columbia’s final mission.

Many of you knew Norm. He was my mentor, hiring me into the NASA Test Director’s office after Challenger. He was also my very close friend, and friend to so many at KSC and beyond. He earned all the accolades received at the services. From being the Launch Vehicle Test Conductor for the Apollo missions, his launch team leadership in the early days of Shuttle, to his unabashed pride in NASA and love for throwing parties, Norm was special. A commemorative coin given out at the services said it best, “Norm Carlson a True KSC Legend.” He would have loved the tribute. And Bobbie, his wife “forever”, would have, too. (A room in the Launch Control Center is named for Bobbie, a tribute to a truly fine lady.)

Jonathan and I kicked around the book idea and both concluded it NEEDED to be told, and the story needed to be written before more years robbed us of memories, or worse. The passage of time made research for Jonathan’s two KSC-based Apollo books particularly difficult. Fortunately, all that research was done with Norm’s awesome help. Unfortunately, Norm missed the books’ actual releases.

With Jonathan’s help, the story of Columbia and her final crew’s recovery, reconstruction, and use for the betterment of spacecraft design will be told.

I only wish Norm could read it.

mike-and-jonathan
Mike and Jonathan, five minutes after we decided to write the book together.