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

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 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 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, five minutes after we decided to write the book together.

Parallel Confusion

One of the most interesting things I’ve realized while doing the research for the book is what I call ‘Parallel Confusion.’

Those of us at KSC waiting for Columbia to touch down were confused when she didn’t. Those wonderful people in east Texas were confused when they heard the horrible sounds of thousands of pieces of debris falling to the ground.

We didn’t know WHERE it was. They didn’t know WHAT it was.

We were experiencing an emptiness unlike any other, they were experiencing sensory input like none before. All of us would soon come together to solve our mysteries.

A stark example of the depth of those differences that morning happened about an hour after Columbia and her crew should have been on the runway: We were holding our first meeting in the Launch Control Center to lay out our initial actions while the first crew member was being protected by locals having just been found.

Our job; their nightmare.

Within minutes of that, astronauts from JSC were on site taking care of their comrades. Within hours, senior NASA reps were on hand to establish preliminary control of the situation. That evening our first KSC support arrived at Barksdale AFB. The next morning would see us all begin to sort things out.

(Good) Scope Creep

Anyone who has worked on a project knows the dangers of scope creep—those seemingly inevitable changes or “features” that sneak in along the way, causing a project to balloon far beyond what you originally signed on to do. In the world of project management, with deadlines, budgets, and limited resources, scope creep can ruin your life, bankrupt your company, and cause your project to fail.

Writing a book can also take you far afield from your original intent. Scope creep after you’ve signed on with a publisher means precious time wasted on endless rabbit holes of interesting stuff that ultimately has little to do with what you committed to deliver. Then you face weeks of sleepless nights trying to cram your 200,000 words of brilliant material into a 100,000 word book.

For Bringing Columbia Home, our original intent was to tell a success story about the men and women of Kennedy Space Center who had cared for Columbia before and after missions, but who had to fight shock and grief to spend much of 2003 picking up and re-assembling Columbia‘s broken debris.

It was a dramatic, powerful story, and it would have made an interesting book. But every person we interviewed said the same thing: You can’t tell this story without talking about the people of east Texas and what they did to support us.

Mike and I debated whether this avenue was going to open the book up too wide—to dilute the message somehow. It seemed an important topic to pursue, though.

I contacted the board of the Patricia Huffman Smith Museum Remembering Columbia in the small town of Hemphill, Texas, and arranged to visit and interview some of the townspeople. I was unprepared for the outpouring of hospitality I received from people who had no agenda other than to modestly tell their individual parts of the story and see that the good works of their neighbors were remembered.

Working as I do with oral history, it’s always fascinating to come across people who were at the same event recounted by another person you’ve already talked to. Here, I interviewed dozens of townspeople who had so lovingly embraced members of the NASA family in their time of deepest need—nice folks who walked the thorny woods in the sleet, provided meals, opened their homes for NASA workers to stay in, did their laundry, prayed with them on the sidewalks, and provided daily encouragement to NASA to get the Shuttle flying again.

The bond between the people of the NASA community who came to search for their fallen comrades and the citizens Sabine County, Texas is unbreakable. Their histories are forever intertwined and inseparable. You can’t tell the story of Columbia‘s recovery without celebrating the remarkable work of the citizens of east Texas.

You’ll read a lot about them in Bringing Columbia Home.

Mike and I made the right call. This time, scope creep was a good thing.

Seeing the bigger picture

I’ve been asked, “What have you learned since starting the book?” The answer is I had just one small piece in the enormous overall effort, though it seemed and felt larger at the time. This is probably because of the total commitment at the time that consumed us all. Maybe others feel the same?

But that answer is weak. True, but weak. The truth is I have learned a tremendous amount about the recovery of the debris, and some on its reconstruction. This is both on the technical/physical side of those efforts, but what’s more, on the personal side – the people that did it.

Filling in tons of details in my understanding of the searching for the debris was perhaps the largest single learning I’ve had. I was only at Barksdale AFB for twelve days before returning to KSC for the reconstruction effort, so I never got ‘down and in’ in the recovery like I did for the reconstruction. The twelve days was spent helping Dave Whittle and the Mishap Investigation Team get set up, establishing the early plans and policies, arranging for KSC support for it, etc.

We got a lot done in those twelve days—don’t get me wrong. But I only once had a chance to get to a debris site once, and only for a couple hours. I never experienced what so many people did in the raw fields of Texas. I regret I didn’t truly experience it. But I was called upon to lead the reconstruction effort, so I returned home.

Hearing what people actually went through in the recovery of the crew and debris made me wish I had helped them. Their stories will be in the book. It’s important we all know what they experienced and the sacrifices they made. I have never been so proud of people I know (and never knew) in my life. That’s the #1 take-away for me from this whole endeavor. By far.

And it’s not only the people that walked the lines—it’s the great citizens of Texas that helped them get through the ordeal. Their support was every bit as important as the searchers themselves. Their contributions were vital, impromptu at first, and entirely voluntary.


25,000 Heroes

Mike Leinbach and I are excited to be kicking off this new project in conjunction with our forthcoming book, Bringing Columbia Home.

Our research for the book over the past year and a half has involved talking to more than 100 participants in the recovery and reconstruction of Columbia. We have interviewed people from all walks of life – from the former Administrator of NASA (Sean O’Keefe), to more than a dozen astronauts, to employees of the FBI, FEMA, US and Texas Forest Services, to people like Marie “Little Granny” Nelson, a volunteer who prepared and served food for the search crews in Hemphill, Texas in February 2003.

We’re amazed at how the loss and recovery of Columbia deeply touched and changed the lives of every one of the 25,000 people involved in the effort. It was an event of critical national importance. The success of the effort required extraordinary personal compassion, commitment, and courage.

The loss of Columbia and her crew was an international tragedy. Equally tragic is that so many people do not know or remember the amazing work done by everyday Americans to recover Columbia. Their courage and sacrifices enabled NASA to get the space shuttle fleet flying again and continue its mission.

The story of Columbia‘s recovery and reconstruction is simply too big to fit into one book. That’s why we started this blog. We hope to shine a light on the incredible events of the first half of 2003, when Americans of all backgrounds united to perform the largest land search and recovery operation in our history.

Please let us know if you or one of your friends or family took part in the recovery and reconstruction. We look forward to hearing from you!


There are very few subjects that would get me to write a book or participate in a blog, but finally telling the untold piece of the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy has done it. Jonathan Ward and I are honored to finally bring it to you and the American people, who deserve to know how well the recovery and reconstruction of Columbia‘s debris went. And, more importantly, it relates how thousands of Americans from completely diverse walks of life came together for the single purpose of assisting NASA and their country in an endeavor unlike any other in history.

The loss of Columbia’s seven astronaut crew members and the Orbiter itself has been documented in several books of varying styles, technical acumen, and/or retrospective insight, but the recovery of her debris and subsequent reconstruction for engineering forensic study has never been adequately documented. ‘Bringing Columbia Home’ will do it in detail, with the story told by those that did it. It is an integral part of the national tragedy and, interestingly, a real success story.

The loss was deeply moving for those of us who were close to the astronauts and the Space Shuttle program. It also became an indelible memory for over 25,000 Americans who answered the call for help. The book will be dedicated to them. We hope it will well honor the American spirit of cooperation and compassion they brought to the effort. I saw it. I experienced it. I was part of it. It was real.

Jonathan and I welcome your comments and recollections as we write the book. We have tried very hard to interview folks from all the many different organizations and “ordinary citizens” who contributed their time and hearts recovering over 84,000 pieces of Columbia from the raw fields of east Texas and those that were asked to figure out what happened to the mighty spaceship based solely on the recovered debris.

The success of both groups contributed directly to NASA’s ability to get the Shuttle flying again, and safer. And that was glorious to experience.

So here we go. And to the 25,000, we hope the eventual book (publication estimate December, 2017) will be one you will be proud of and can share with your families, friends, and especially your children, relating your own contribution in a way only you can. For me, I am profoundly proud to have been part of your team.

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