It’s been far too long since Mike and I last checked in, for which we apologize!
I’m writing this from the airport terminal at Newark after a whirlwind weekend in the New York City area. Mike and I spoke on Saturday at the Northeast Astronomy Forum, the annual shindig thrown by the Rockland Astronomy Club. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The exhibit hall in the field house was filled with an eye-watering (wrong expression) display of telescopes and accessories that told me that I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of amateur astrophotography.
We were interviewed on Cosmic Perspective Radio at 9:45 Saturday morning, following their discussion with Pranvera Hyseni, the dynamic force behind the Astronomy Outreach of Kosovo. I had the tough job of speaking immediately after Pranvera at Spacefest last year! Her passion for bringing astronomy education and an observatory to Kosovo are unparalleled.
Mike and I spoke at 5:00 in a magnificent venue, in a setting very much like a TED talk. We weren’t sure how many amateur astronomers would be interested in hanging around until the end of the day to hear a talk about the Columbia accident. However, we were gratified by the rapt attention of the large crowd. Once again, we affirmed that the Columbia recovery story is one that the public wants to hear. Afterward, we signed books continuously for more than half an hour. Many thanks to Ken Kremer for inviting us to attend and to the wonderful people at the Rockland Astronomy Club for treating us so well at this event.
The next day, we were guests at the Bueller Challenger and Science Center in Paramus, New Jersey. The Challenger Centers are a worldwide network of educational centers that were born from a shared desire by the families of the STS-51L Challenger crew to carry on the crew’s educational mission. We had to shift gears to go from addressing a crowd of astronomers to a group of enthusiastic students and their parents! The kids asked some great questions that often cut right to the heart of some of the major issues facing NASA. We know the future is in good hands when these students eventually take charge.
This promises to be another busy week. The audiobook of Bringing Columbia Home is scheduled to be released later this week. I had the pleasure of speaking with Danny Campbell, who is narrating the majority of the book. He’s an outstanding actor, and we know he will do wonders with the text. His wife Cassandra will be reading Eileen Collins’ epilogue.
Speaking of Eileen Collins, she let us know yesterday that she spoke over the weekend at the Museum of the Southwest in Midland, Texas. She said that the people of Texas sure like the book, and that she signed more than fifty copies after her talk.
At 7:00 pm on Thursday, April 26, Ann Micklos will be signing books at the Fairfield (Connecticut) University Bookstore. You all know that Ann’s poignant story was a cornerstone of the very human nature of the events surrounding the loss of Columbia and the investigation of the accident. If you’re in the area, please stop by and meet Ann.
I’ll be speaking at the Infinity Science Center in Pearland, Mississippi on Friday for the Space Hipsters (Facebook group) Spring Field Trip. I’m looking forward to meeting many of my online friends face-to-face. We’re also getting a tour of the Michoud Assembly Plant, where the space shuttle’s external tank were built.
So you can see that we’re staying very busy sharing the story of Columbia and the amazing efforts of so many people to bring her home again. Stay tuned for more news soon!
It’s hard to believe that it is less than two months since Bringing Columbia Home was “officially” released. The book’s momentum continues to be very strong, as evidenced by both sales data as well as the feedback we’re receiving from readers.
We learned this week that the book is going into its third printing! Pre-orders were so strong that the second print run was ordered before the book even officially went on sale in January. Sales stats show that it’s selling well all over the country, not just in areas near NASA centers. We feel that is an indication that people from all walks of life are seeing this as an American success story.
Audiobook set for release next month!
Tantor Media will be releasing the audio version of Bringing Columbia Home on April 24! Pre-orders are available at Tantor’s website. Danny Campbell and Cassandra Campbell are the voice actors who are reading the book. Danny was the reader for the audio version of Gene Kranz’s Failure Is Not an Option. Cassandra Campbell has recorded nearly 200 audiobooks and has one many awards for her narration. We are confident that this amazing team will do a great job with the book.
What readers are saying
The book is getting rave reviews on Amazon.com, and Mike and I are grateful for the feedback that people are leaving for us on the website, on Amazon, and also the private emails that people have sent us.
We were particularly moved by this review left on Amazon by Barent “Barry” McCool, who is the father of Columbia‘s final pilot:
Since my son was Cdr Willie McCool, this book had a special meaning for me. Additional closure and an account on the events while I was in Houston during the recovery efforts. I give it 5 Stars plus.
We also appreciate the honest feedback from people who have told us how emotionally difficult it was for them to read. This comment from a recent reviewer sums up what we hear a lot—and what we ultimately hope people take away from the story of STS-107’s recovery and reconstruction:
I found myself in tears more than once as the tale unfolds. This book makes me proud to be an American all over again.
And we also had some feedback from astronaut Scott Kelly!
In ‘Bringing Columbia Home,’ Mike Leinbach and Jonathan Ward have vividly captured the intensity of those very difficult days. They tell the story with compassion but without pulling any punches. The book also reminded me of the spirit of the American people who selflessly worked together to help NASA in its hour of greatest need. It’s a message we all need to remember these days.
If the book moved you as it has moved these other readers, we of course would be grateful for your spreading the word to your friends and colleagues. A positive review on Amazon is also very helpful for encouraging other people to read the book.
Mike and I are still catching our breath after the first phase of the book tour ended in mid-February. We are continuing our public appearances, and here are a few upcoming events:
NASA Safety Days, Kennedy Space Center: Mike will be delivering two talks at KSC the week of March 12 as part of NASA’s Safety Days observances.
NASA Alumni League – Florida Chapter: Mike will be the guest speaker and will be signing books at the NAL’s meeting at 11:00 on March 20 at the Debus Center at the KSC Visitor Complex. The event is sold out!
Next week’s blog update will include information on our public appearances the rest of this spring and summer.
Wow, what a rush! I can’t believe how energizing—and exhausting—the past four weeks on the road have been! And that was on top of the month spent preparing for the book’s rollout.
You may have heard that marketing a book is harder work than writing a book. I will tell you from first-hand experience that it’s true.
Recall that Mike and I met in St. Augustine, Florida on December 18 and 19, where we signed 350 books and mailed more than 200 of them to people who had placed pre-orders. The other 100 copies went out in the mail over the course of the next several weeks.
Our official book launch tour started off with our talk at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas on January 16. We followed that with events in the Kennedy Space Center area on January 25, 26, and 27. Then it was on to Houston and Mike’s panel discussion on January 31.
We drove to Hemphill that afternoon and spent a deeply moving couple of days with the people who had worked so hard to search for Columbia‘s crew and to support the NASA family after the accident. Signing our books in Hemphill’s Remembering Columbia museum on the 15th anniversary of the accident was the culmination of all that we had been working for over the past three years.
Then it was back to Houston for another talk on February 3. We had a couple of days back at home to recover, and then it was on to Virginia for our events at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum on February 11 and 12.
Our final events for this tour were on February 15. First was a talk and book signing at lunchtime at the OSB2 building, for KSC employees. We had time for a quick bite afterward at Crackerjacks in Titusville before heading to our next stop—a presentation and signing at The Great Outdoors, an RV and golf resort west of Titusville. We had a packed house of very attentive people who asked a lot of great questions!
Our final event was a celebratory dinner at Zarella’s Italian restaurant in Cape Canaveral. We were joined by retired CNN reporter John Zarella (his sons own the restaurant) and several members of the Space Hipsters Facebook community. John is a larger-than-life personality, and he entertained us with many behind-the-scenes tales of shenanigans at Kennedy Space Center. It was the perfect celebration and a wonderful way to end a very, very tiring month on the road.
Recapping the Rollout
I neglected to keep exact measurements, but here are some estimated summary stats for what we’ve been up to since we received the books in mid-December:
Books signed: 850+
Public appearances: 15 (3 memorial services, 4 panel discussions, 3 presentations, 5 book signings)—about 3,000 people saw us in person
Miles flown (Jonathan): 4,897
Miles driven (Jonathan): 3,250
Recorded audio interviews: 2
Taped TV interviews: 4
Newspaper and other interviews: 5+
Live broadcasts (TV, radio, webcast, podcast): 5
Numbers, of course, don’t tell the real story. I have more than enough fond memories from this trip to last a lifetime. Witnessing a tearful hug between Belinda Gay and one of the NASA men who searched for Columbia in the Hemphill area. Meeting the spouses of some of Columbia‘s crew. Introducing Mike to the heroes of the recovery operations. Having friends and family on hand for the National Air and Space Museum interview. Seeing the good people of East Texas smile with delight at receiving their copy of the book containing their stories. Hanging out with Greg Cohrs and his family. Sharing the legacy of Columbia and her crew with people who had no prior knowledge of the scope of the recovery operations. Receiving so many expressions of thanks and encouragement.
And not least, spending countless hours with The People’s Launch Director, who I am honored to call my friend and colleague.
This is just the end of Part I. We’ll have more appearances in the coming months. And there are exciting things in the works!
Mike and I were invited to speak at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) on February 12. While I always feel honored to speak to groups, this venue held a special place in my heart. I worked as a volunteer tour guide at the NASM back in the summers of 1971 and 1972, while I was a student in high school. I can’t tell you how excited I was to be back again in the capacity of a subject matter expert!
We began our Washington, DC weekend with a signing at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, on Sunday, February 11. The Udvar-Hazy Center’s vast hangar holds planes and space vehicles that are too large to display in a more traditional museum. Here you’ll find everything from a World War I “Spad” to the B-29 Enola Gay that dropped the Hiroshima bomb to a Concorde SST to an SR-71 to the space shuttle Discovery!
Mike and I walked around Discovery before our book signing. Mike remarked that the last time he stood under Discovery, she was still radiating heat from re-entry. That was after the conclusion of the STS-133 mission on March 9, 2011.
I was fascinated to hear Mike point out several things that I might not have otherwise noticed. For example, take a look at the discolored streaks marked by the arrows in the photo below. Those give you an indication of the angle of attack—how steeply “nose-up” the space shuttle flies when it is re-entering the atmosphere.
Mike also pointed out to me some of the newer, high-density “FRCI” insulation tiles on various spots along the orbiter. These newer-technology tiles replaced some tiles along the orbiter’s belly and under its wings. You can see some of them in the photo above, as they are darker black than the older tiles.
I never cease to be amazed at how large a vehcile the space shuttle orbiter was—and Mike points out that it was the smallest part of the shuttle “stack” at launch.
It’s doubly hard to imagine that a one-pound piece of foam could bring down such a mighty ship, as it did with Columbia.
As a longtime resident of Northern Virginia, before I moved to North Carolina seven years ago, I really enjoyed seeing many friends of mine who came by to say hi at the museum. My son and daughter also brought their families to share the day with me. My middle granddaughter Samantha wore her astronaut garb and she fit right in!
That night, we met for dinner with former shuttle commander Pam Melroy and Robert Hanley of NASA. Pam was in charge of the Columbia crew module reconstruction effort back in 2003, and she was instrumental in writing the crew survivability report that was key to several important equipment redesigns for future crewed spacecraft. Robert was a member of the Vehicle Integration Test Team in 2003, and he also played a very important role in the crew module reconstruction. Both Pam and Robert were key contributors for Bringing Columbia Home, and although I’d spoken with them extensively on the phone, I’d never met them in person.
Astronauts always have tons of wonderful stories to relate! I was thrilled to hear Pam give us some peaks behind the scenes of what it was like to work as a “Cape Crusader” to prepare shuttles for other crews, as well as her own experiences during missions. For example, she said that you get used to making very small and very slow movements when you’re in zero-G; she said you could always tell who the rookie astronauts were because they were covered with bruises after the first day or two. But it was critical for the shuttle’s commander and pilot to prepare for the larger, more forceful actions that would be needed to control the shuttle during reentry. So the pilots had a hand controller hooked to a laptop that enabled them to simulate the actual hand and arm motions required for reentry and landing beginning a day before the end of the mission. Pam said she really needed that reminder, because she blew the first simulated landing!
Pam also mentioned that she always had a particularly hard time adjusting from zero-G back to Earth’s gravity. It was doubly hard for her when she had to fly the shuttle back home as commander when “my gyros were pegged” and she felt physically awful from the transition back to gravity.
Robert had been the personal interface between Columbia‘s crew and the vehicle team on the ground at Kennedy. He shared some wonderful reminiscences—touching and funny—of his time with the crew of STS-107.
Monday, February 12 was our day at the NASM’s main building on Independence Avenue in Washington, DC. We were hosted by Dr. Valerie Neal, chair of the Smithsonian’s Space History Department and curator of the NASM’s space artifacts. Mike taped a brief segment with Marty Kelsey for the Smithsonian’s STEM-in-30 program, talking about how the slidewire escape system worked at the launch pad. Mike also taped a short segment for middle school students about his educational and career path and what he liked about his job.
Then it was time for the “What’s New in Aerospace?” program, hosted by Dr. Neal. I can’t describe for you how amazing it felt to be in that wonderful space, with my family in the front row of the audience—and my guidance counselor from high school sitting right behind them! I hadn’t seen her in person for 35 years, but we have kept in touch since 1974. She was instrumental in helping me sort out my educational path when I was a confused teenager, and even after I went off to college. It was such an honor to have her there to share the culmination of my life’s work (so far).
I can’t believe how fast the program time flew by. Dr. Neal’s easygoing demeanor made this feel much more like a conversation with a friend than a presentation to a worldwide audience. It seemed like we were just scratching the surface of our stories about the recovery effort, and suddenly we saw the PA holding up a sign that it was 2:28 pm, meaning the show was only supposed to go another two minutes longer! There was so much more we wanted to talk about, but no time in which to do it.
Afterward, we learned that over 3,600 people had watched the program on Facebook Live! And the recording of the show is now posted here for your viewing pleasure.
I should also point out that the Smithsonian asked us to write a blog post for their website about the Columbia accident and its aftermath, and you can find it at this link.
We signed books at the NASM gift shop afterward. It’s always a pleasure to sign books for people who are interested in learning more about the story, and it’s always interesting to hear what parts of the book people found most absorbing. It’s sometimes difficult for authors to judge how their book will resonate with people, especially in a book like this that has technical aspects but also deeply emotional moments. As Mike says about the reconstruction, “If you can separate out the emotions, it was a fascinating engineering exercise…but you can’t separate out the emotions.”
After the signing, we met up with former Shuttle Test Director Al Sofge and his wife Suzanne, a retired director from NOAA. Mike, his wife Charlotte, and Al and Suzanne shared a lot of laughs about the life of a test director during the shuttle program. Mike noted that Al was notorious for walking so briskly through the hallways that he created a gust of wind when he strode by. People gave the strength of that wind gust the unit of measure “1 Al.” If he was in a hurry for something particularly important, he might create a gust of 1.2 Al or even 1.4 Al! We also talked about the recent SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch and possible paths that NASA and the commercial crew companies might take.
All too quickly, our time in DC was over. We said our goodbyes at our hotel in Virginia this morning, and laughed when we said—seriously—”See you tomorrow in Florida!” We have two more signings on Thursday, February 15 in the KSC area.
Mike and I finished the final events (*so far) of the Texas portion of our book tour this week.
We drove back from Hemphill on Friday morning, to be greeted by a Texas-sized traffic slowdown on I-10 near Baytown as we rushed to reach our noon appointment at Johnson Space Center. We were only a few minutes late meeting Lori Wheaton of JSC External Affairs who whisked us away to the Sonny Carter neutral buoyancy lab north of JSC.
The size of the facility defies description. The pool is so deep (40 feet) that the water make it appear that the bottom is curved in a concave vault shape! The size of the modules in the water showed just how large the International Space Station really is, and how hard it must have been for the astronauts fo We arrived just after a training session. Two people walked by us wearing astronaut cooling garments, and we saw technicians preparing one of the astronaut EVA suits to be carted away.
Back at Johnson, we set up in Building 3’s cafeteria for a book signing starting at 3:00 p.m. It was an unusual time for them to host a signing, as the employee store normally closes at 3:00, and this being a Friday, it was uncertain just how many employees would want to come by. Much to our surprise and relief, we had quite a turnout. More than 80 people had books signed. Many people told us about their personal experiences with the search and recovery effort.
On Saturday, I took advantage of a generous offer that Tracy Lamm of Space Center Houston to take me around the visitor center before our scheduled presentation. I enjoyed seeing “the other Columbia,” the Command Module from Apollo 11, in the central part of the main room. Tracy also took me out to the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft and the Space Shuttle. I hadn’t been inside the SCA before, and I had forgotten just how big a 747 is inside! I was particularly impressed with the video about the gentleman who used radio controlled airplanes to model how the SCA would have to perform in order to lift the shuttle.
I had the rare good fortune to have a quiet meal with Tom Jones in the conference room in between two of Tom’s appearances that day. Tom had just finished an in-depth reading of “Bringing Columbia Home.” I was flattered that he had so many nice things to say about the book and the anecdotes that had most impressed him. Tom’s always been one of my favorite astronauts, and I feel so lucky that I’ve gotten to know him over the years since we used to run into each other at one of our favorite hangouts, Cafe Sano in Reston.
Mike arrived after lunch. Tracy took Mike around for a short tour. While they were in the Apollo 11 exhibit, I ran into Belinda Gay, who was attending the Space Exploration Educators Conference (SEEC) at the space center. While I was talking to her, Rene Arriens also came by. Rene was on the closeout crew in the shuttle White Room. He was also a searcher in Sabine County during the Columbia recovery. He’d never met Belinda before. When he started to recall his experiences in Sabine County, his emotions began to bubble to the surface. It didn’t help that I told him that Belinda had been responsible for the meals he ate in Hemphill’s VFW hall. The two of them shared a tearful hug. What a powerful moment that was, and I felt privileged to witness it.
Mike and I delivered our presentation to the SEEC as the keynote speakers for the last day. We were in an IMAX-size theater, and they had opened it up to any visitors who wanted to attend. Our audience was therefore a mix of educators and the public. But everyone seemed very interested in what we had to say about that remarkable time in history. Mike and I pointed out Belinda in the audience when we talked about the volunteer effort, and she got a big round of applause. We had some great questions, such as how educators might petition to use Columbia debris in the classroom. Mike encouraged them to submit applications. I concluded with a few comments about the divisive mood of the country during the accident recovery, and that if we could put differences aside then, we could certainly do so now to accomplish important work.
After the talk, we signed books in front of the gift shop. In the course of 1-1/2 hours, we signed more than 120 books for some very enthusiastic educators. I met several fellow Solar System Ambassadors, which I enjoyed very much. Many families also came through. One young fellow at the end asked for advice on how to become an astronomer. He thought I was an astronaut! I set him straight—but I did feel compelled to show him some photos from my zero-G flight in 2016!
And so concluded the Texas leg(s) of our book tour. What a magical time it’s been. I have really enjoyed the enthusiastic reception the book has gotten, and it’s been a real thrill to meet so many interested people. I heard a lot of stories about what it was like to witness the accident and live through the aftermath. It all just goes to deepen my respect for the people who took part in this incredible time in our nation’s history.
Mike and I fly to our respective homes on Monday to catch our breath and relax in familiar surroundings. But we’ll be back on the road later on in the week. We’ll be signing books at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia next Sunday (February 11) from 12:00-3:00. Our presentation at the NASM in downtown Washington, DC will be on Monday, February 12 from 2:00-2:30.
I’m at a loss to describe what an incredibly powerful day we had in Hemphill, Texas, on this the fifteenth anniversary of the Columbia accident.
We spent Wednesday night at the Fin and Feather Resort on the Toledo Bend Reservoir six miles south of Hemphill. (This was the base for Navy salvage operations during the Columbia recovery.) The Sabine County Memorial Committee threw a nice Texas-style party for us in the resort’s convention center that evening.
Thursday morning began at a 7:45 service at Hemphill’s First Baptist Church. The service included a remembrance of the crew of STS-107 and the two men who perished during the recovery effort. Following that were tributes to the people of East Texas delivered by NASA officials: Gerry Schumann, who worked for four months in the recovery in Hemphill; Sean O’Keefe, former Administrator of NASA; Mike Leinbach, former Shuttle Launch Director; Ellen Ochoa, Director of Johnson Space Center; and Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations. All reiterated the undying gratitude that NASA feels to the people of Texas—and thousands of Americans from across the country—who labored so selflessly to find Columbia’s crew and recover the evidence that enabled NASA to return the space shuttle fleet to flight.
Mike described his impressions on first seeing the landscape on our drive into the area yesterday. He said it had been hard for him to picture the density of the pine forests and the distances that the searchers had to cover during the recovery. He left it simply, “When I was working with the debris in the reconstruction hangar, I just did not appreciate what people had to go through to get it to us.”
Bill Gerstenmaier let the people of Hemphill know that, “whenever you step outside before sunrise or after sunset and see the International Space Station fly overhead, you should know that bright star is there because of what you did.”
The spouses of four of Columbia’s crew were on hand during the service: Evelyn Husband Thompson, widow of commander Rick Husband; Sandy Anderson, widow of mission specialist Michael Anderson; Jean-Pierre “J. P.” Harrison, husband of Kalpana “KC” Chawla; and Jonathan Clark, husband of mission specialist Laurel Clark. I had the honor of meeting and talking with all four of them after the service. They all asked Mike and me to sign copies of the book for them, and J.P. also took a copy of the book for Lani McCool.
We drove over to the museum, uncertain whether there would be any books there for us to sign! A delay in the second printing led to a late shipment of the books from the distributor. Belinda Gay rode herd on our publisher all week. As of the evening of January 31, it appeared that the shipment had not left the distribution center. Just before the memorial service started, Belinda told me that she had heard that one box of books had left Shreveport bound for Nacogdoches overnight. She had dispatched someone to intercept the shipment when it arrived at Nacogdoches at 9 a.m. and to drive the box directly to the museum. It was only going to be 24 books, but combined with the 10 books our agent brought us in Houston on Wednesday, it would be better than nothing.
For some reason, I was too stupid or too trusting or too much of a Pollyanna to believe that there would ever be a problem with getting the books to Hemphill on the day of the anniversary. I just couldn’t let that possibility enter my mind. I just smiled and waited.
Just as Mike and I arrived at the museum, the driver arrived with the box! The museum was already mobbed with people waiting for us to sign the books they had brought with them from home. Mike and I were so overwhelmed that we failed to notice the congratulatory cake that the museum staff had prepared for us. (Apologies, everyone!)
We started signing at 10:00 and kept going for two hours without a pause. Some people brought with them six or more copies of the book that they had purchased from Amazon for family and friends. Many people had books signed for their children and grandchildren. All were genuinely thrilled that we had chosen to tell the story of the miraculous deeds of the people in this corner of the world. And they were justifiably proud of their contributions to the recovery. And I enjoyed seeing that many of them had signed each other’s books, too. What a fantastic way to connect!
It was a joy to meet these wonderful folks, shake their hands, have our picture taken with them, and hear their stories of how the Columbia accident affected them.
As Mike and I kept signing books, we wondered where they were all coming from! It turned out that the other three boxes of books that Belinda ordered showed up unexpectedly. The museum now had ninety books for sale. Everyone who wanted a book got one. And the museum made a lot of money from the sales. It felt like the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
As Belinda and Marsha say, “It’s a God thing.”
I also believe it is due to the hard work Belinda put into tracking down those shipments, and the efforts that the staff at Skyhorse Publishing put into making this possible. I’m grateful that it worked out so perfectly, and I thank everyone who worked so hard on our behalf. The end result was a LOT of happy people in Hemphill and two very happy authors.
The Tyler, Texas TV station interviewed Mike and me briefly, and then we went to lunch at the church’s family center. You wouldn’t believe the spread of food contributed by the townspeople. You could have had just one teaspoon of food from each of the dishes and still overflowed your plate.
We left from the church for a side trip to two very special sites near town. The first is the “nose cone site,” the place where Columbia’s nose cap came to Earth. The large rounded piece of reinforced carbon-carbon and some supporting structure had crashed through the trees and created a small crater in the forest floor. The US Forest Service helped NASA removed the wreckage from the site, and the piece now resides in the Columbia Preservation Office at Kennedy Space Center. A few PVC pipes mark the perimeter of the indentation that still exists, 15 years later. The Sabine County Memorial Committee has been trying for years to purchase the land to turn the site into a memorial grove. Hopes are high that it can happen sometime in the next couple of years.
We then visited the American Hero site, where the first remains of a Columbia crew member were found on February 1, 2003, barely an hour after the accident. It’s a touching reminder of the reverence with which the community still regards Columbia’s crew.
We returned to the museum, where Mike graciously helped judge a robotics competition amongst area high schools. After another TV interview, our day wrapped up at about four o’clock. I drove Mike and Jane by the VFW hall outside town, so they could see the place that served as the command center in Sabine County during the recovery. It’s hard to imagine now the days when there were police cruisers parked more than one quarter mile along the road leading to the hall every morning.
We had a few beers to celebrate and unwind in the bar overlooking the lake. The day was such a whirlwind that it’s difficult to take it all in. My predominant emotion is unadulterated joy at being back here on the anniversary, as I promised to Marsha and Belinda two years ago, with a book that celebrates Columbia and the people who brought her home. There’s a sense of pride in a mission accomplished. I feel tremendous love for these wonderful people who have enfolded us in such a warm embrace. I’m delighted that Mike was able to make the trip and make this connection, too.
It’s fantastic to see folks again. Sheriff Maddox told me that I have a “get out of jail free” any time I’m in town. Marie “Little Grannie” Nelson brought us banana bread. Jan Amen made us Smoky the Bear dish cloths! Don Eddings, Don Iles, Mike Alexander, Olen Bean, Roger Gay, Jamie Sowell, and so many others—how great to catch up with you.
And Marsha Cooper and Belinda Gay…what more can you say about two women who have kept the memory and magic of that time alive? I’m deeply grateful to you as always. Thank you.
My heart goes out to Greg Cohrs, who received word during the memorial service that his mother had passed away. Now February 1 will mark two times when Greg’s life changed forever. Greg, I’m deeply sorry for your loss.
We are headed back to Houston again tomorrow for the last leg of our Texas trip.
This month I assembled three videos to memorialize the crew of STS-107 and to recognize the sacrifices of those who fought so hard to bring Columbia home and prepare the shuttle fleet to fly again. These videos were first shown publicly at the “Columbia: Lessons and Legends of Recovery” event at Kennedy Space Center on January 26.
I understand that versions of these videos may be officially shared later on, but I wanted to give you the opportunity to see them this week as we reflect on the crew of STS-107 on this 15th anniversary of their loss.
I’ll share the videos one at a time for the next three days. Although I hope the videos stand on their own, I’ll give a little preview of what you’ll see.
The videos are not subtitled, so you’ll need to have your sound turned on when you watch them. Also, please bear in mind that making these videos was the first time I’d ever used iMovie, and I am far from being a professional video editor!
The crew of STS-107 discuss their excitement about the upcoming mission. Launch Director Mike Leinbach wishes the crew “Good luck and Godspeed,” and Columbia launches into a beautiful blue sky. We see some highlights of the crew’s on-orbit activities. The six-minute video fades to black with Mission Control’s calls to the crew during re-entry.
Tomorrow: A Tribute to the Crew of Columbia Mission STS-107.
On January 26, 2018 I had the distinct honor of being one of several guests in a panel discussions entitled, “Columbia—Lessons and Legends of Recovery.” The panel was produced by Michael “Chach” Ciannilli, head of NASA’s Apollo Challenger Columbia Lessons Learned Program, and it was held in Kennedy Space Center’s Training Auditorium. Several hundred people attended; indeed, it was standing room only!
Chach opened the meeting with a vivid visual image of how the thousands of volunteers and workers from more than one hundred agencies transformed what had been a very dark day into something with a brighter meaning. Chach said that a few glimmers of light in that initial darkness came together to produce a few rays of light, and as the days progressed and more people became involved, those rays came together to form a beams of light, and eventually those beams gathered into a powerful beacon that guided Columbia and her crew home one final time.
KSC Director Bob Cabana spoke next, recalling how the STS-107 mission was his first as head of the Astronaut Office. He had been on the Astrovan with the crew as they went to the launch pad on January 16, 2003. He was at the runway waiting for them to come home on February 1. And it was a short time after they failed to arrive that he had to inform their families that the crew had perished. Cabana said he hopes no one at NASA will ever have to do something like that again.
Mike Leinbach spoke next, setting the stage for the accident and the early phases of recovery and reconstruction. Mike was followed by Dave King, former Marshall Space Flight Center Director, who led NASA’s efforts to recover Columbia‘s crew and the vehicle’s debris. King said that until we interviewed him for the book, he had rarely spoken to anyone about his experiences in the recovery, and that this was one of the first times he had ever spoken about it publicly.
Following King’s remarks was a short video tribute to the crew of Columbia. I produced the video for this event, and you can find it at this link. The music is as song “Sixteen Minutes from Home,” by Chach’s nephew Kyle Breese.
The next hour was a panel discussion. Included were Greg Cohrs of the USDA Forest Service (who was instrumental in leading the search for Columbia’s crew in Sabine County, Texas), Gerry Schumann (NASA’s Program Manager for Institutional Safety), Dave King, Mike Leinbach, Chach, and myself. We covered a wide range of topics ranging from where we each were when we learned of the accident to the lessons we learned and what we think the American public needs to know.
Most deeply touching to me was hearing senior NASA leaders say that the accident strengthened their resolve to make sure everyone has a voice and to speak up whenever something doesn’t feel right—not to assume that “smart people somewhere must already be looking at this.”
Greg Cohrs and I both provided “outside” perspectives on leadership and communications cultural issues. Greg pointed out that the Forest Service had faced very similar issues in how hard it was for unpleasant information to make it to the attention of management, but the Service was making strides to turn that around. I noted that it is easy for management to say that they want open debate, but that it takes extra effort by leaders to insure that there is no hint of intimidation or retribution if someone brings up difficult subjects.
Mike Leinbach strongly recommended that everyone in the audience read both the Rogers Commission report on the Challenger accident and the CAIB report on the Columbia accident, and then read about how NASA responded to both sets of recommendations. “When faced with a decision about how to proceed,” he said, “I hope you’ll do it the way we did after Columbia.” By that, he meant examining institutional and technical flaws with open discussion and debate, and learning from mistakes rather than treating an accident as an embarrassment to be buried and forgotten.
An audience question and answer session ensued, followed by a meet-and-greet after the program ended. What a thrill it was to be part of this discussion and to relax with some of the participants at Brix in Titusville afterward!
I had the honor of attending the NASA Day of Remembrance ceremonies at Kennedy Space Center this morning, as a guest of Mike Leinbach. As much as I thought I was emotionally prepared for the event, I could not help being moved to tears several times during the course of the service.
During the opening acknowledgments, I was elated that Eileen Collins recognized Greg Cohrs from the US Forest Service for his tireless efforts to recover Columbia and her crew, from the day of the accident until the day recovery operations ended. Eileen said that NASA will never forget the support that Greg and the people of East Texas rendered during the recovery of Columbia.
This year’s memorial program focused on four astronauts who perished about fifty years ago: Elliot M. See, Jr., Charles A. Bassett II, Clifton C. “CC” Williams, and Michael Adams. With the exception of X-15 pilot Adams, none of them had the opportunity to make it into space.
Most touching to me was listening to the children of the fallen astronauts, who were still young when their fathers perished. They lost their fathers without having the opportunity to get to know who they really were. Charlie Bassett’s daughter Karen Stevenson was only eight years old when her father was killed. She said, “I was just beginning to realize that he was more than just my daddy: that people cared about him, depended on him, trusted him, admired him…that he was smart, studious, gregarious, warm and funny and dedicated, and maybe just a teensy bit geeky.”
Tal Ramon, the son of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died in the Columbia accident, traveled from Israel for the event. Tal has lost not only his father in 2003 but also his brother Asaf, an Israeli Air Force pilot who died in a training accident in 2009. Tal is using music to help him deal with the loss of his father and brother. He sang and played his stunningly beautiful composition “Dmut” (Courage) and played a piano solo “Victoria” (Victory). His profoundly moving music said more than words could ever convey, and it touched a very deep part of my soul.
Eileen Collins then reverently read the names of the fallen astronauts, and with that music still in our ears, it was impossible not to feel an overwhelming sadness at the loss of people who held such promise—but also to know that they died doing what they truly enjoyed.
The ceremony then moved out to the Space Mirror, where Bob Cabana (Director of Kennedy Space Center) and Therrin Protze (Chief Operating Officer of Delaware North) laid a wreath emblazoned “Forever Remembered.” The rest of us were then invited to twine the stem of a rose or carnation into the fence in front of the mirror. It was a simple and beautiful way to bring closure to the event.
Afterward, I enjoyed connecting with people I’ve met over the years during my many visits to the Space Coast—Lee Solid, Bob Sieck, Russ Lloyd, Ann Micklos, Gerry Schumann, Steve Coester, and Jean Wright, just to name a few who were there. I admire their contributions and envy their connections to the space program. Their careers have included many long days and much thankless effort, but all of it has been important work. We couldn’t be exploring the universe without people like them.
Greg Cohrs, his wife Sandra and his son Adam, and my wife Jane and I then met up with Mike Ciannilli, director of KSC’s Columbia Research and Preservation Office. Mike took us up to the Columbia Room on the 16th floor of the Vehicle Assembly Building. I had the honor of visiting the room in June 2015 when I first began working on the book. However, Greg and his family had not seen it before. The room is currently in transition. Mike has been working to upgrade the room to better fit its intended purpose—as a learning laboratory rather than merely a warehouse of Columbia‘s debris.
Being in the room with Greg and his family was a powerful experience. Greg and Sandra had found pieces of Columbia‘s debris on their property in Hemphill after the accident. Greg of course managed the search operations for Columbia‘s crew in Sabine County, Texas, and then helped manage the debris recovery operations in East Texas after that. Adam had taken two days off from college a week after the accident to help search for the crew. And Mike Ciannilli had flown as a spotter on helicopters out of Palestine, Texas during the debris recovery. Again, I hold these people with utmost admiration for what they did in very tough times.
Mike and Jonathan share their thoughts on NASA’s Day of Remembrance, 2018
by Mike Leinbach and Jonathan Ward
On January 25, NASA and our extended NASA Family will pause to remember the astronauts who lost their lives in service to our country.
The Day of Remembrance was instituted by then-Administrator Sean O’Keefe in 2004. He decreed that the last Thursday in January would be set aside to remember the astronauts who gave their lives in the line of duty.
This year will mark the 51st anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, 32 years since the Challenger accident, and the 15th anniversary of the loss of Columbia in East Texas. All three tragedies occurred within a one-week period in late January and early February, hence the chosen date to hold the Day of Remembrance.
NASA employees and the space community will gather in various places across the country, most near the NASA centers, with common feelings of reverence, respect, and appreciation. We will honor all 24 fallen heroes with speeches and other such memorials—some formal, some less so, but all with the dignity one would expect, and deserved by those we celebrate.
It’s a time to think and thank…
And so it will be again this year. For those of us on the Space Coast, the ceremony is always held at the Space Mirror at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Dedicated in 1991 by Vice President Quayle, the black granite wall, 50 feet wide by 42 feet high, carries the names of the 24 astronauts who died in the line of duty. Their names are laser-cut through the 2.5 inch thick panels for all time and for all to know.
The Astronauts Memorial Foundation administers the memorial among its other very worthy initiatives including educating America’s youth through innovative educational technology programs. I was recently asked to serve on the Board of the Foundation, a call for which I feel deeply honored.
This year’s memorial event starts at 10:00 am Eastern Time, if you’re in the area and would like to attend. It begins in the Center for Education building adjacent to the Rocket Garden. The public is welcome and encouraged to attend.
We hope you will pause and thank our lost astronauts for their sacrifices, no matter your location or connection with them.
On a personal note, these ceremonies invariably leave me with the two dominant feelings I believe most other people experience:
I admire the astronauts and their families, and
I hope the number of fallen comrades stops at 24.
Fairly simplistic I know.
The important thing is, how does #1 manifest itself to make sure #2 happens? That’s better left as the subject for one or more follow-on posts, as it gets complicated pretty fast. It gets into some very fundamental questions about exploration, safety, experience, value, and values.
For now I choose to simply embrace #1 and #2, and remember my friends privately.
— — — — — — —
On the morning of Saturday, January 28, 1967 I was a 10-year-old boy riding with my family in our van in Naha, Okinawa. I vividly remember hearing on Armed Forces Radio that the crew of Apollo 1 had just perished in a fire. My father pulled over to the side of the road. My sisters and I went silent. None of us could believe it. The loss of my astronaut heroes devastated me every bit as powerfully as the assassination of President Kennedy just three years earlier. I worried that our space program had just ended. I was too young to appreciate the resolve of the country and NASA to continue moving forward despite the horrible loss.
Exactly nineteen years later, I walked by a conference room at work where someone had turned on a TV. No one spoke. I saw smoke and vapor trails and was confused about what was going on. What seemed like an eternity passed, as I watched the replays of the fireball and vapor cloud and the solid rocket boosters careening in the sky. Apollo 1 had been an accident on the ground, but Challenger was the first time NASA had lost a crew in flight.
And we lost another seven brave souls in flight on February 1, 2003 when Columbia disintegrated over Texas. The loss of Columbia and her crew affected me perhaps even more deeply than Challenger, as the advent of the Internet and NASA’s public outreach had enabled me to follow the crew’s training and mission for months. This was a crew who I felt that I knew, even though I had never met any of them.
I started attending Spacefests and Astronaut Scholarship Foundation events in 2009. I’ve spent much of the past three years researching the Columbia accident, and now I know dozens of astronauts and other people who had worked on the Space Shuttle Program. I venerated the astronauts as a kid, and continued to put them on pedestals as an adult. But now I realize that I had never fully wrapped my head around the fact that the people who climb into space vehicles are real people with real families. True, they’re exceptionally competent and smart and brave and tough.
But they’re also really nice people with parents and husbands and wives and sons and daughters who care about them and worry about them. I never truly knew what it was like to worry about someone until I became an Army dad, and my son went on his first—and second—and third—deployment to a war zone. That’s when you begin to understand the real nature of sacrifice in the line of duty.
Our astronauts put their lives on the line every day to help make our world a better place. They have to balance the need to explore with the toll that it takes on their families.
I’m thankful that Sean O’Keefe instituted the NASA Day of Remembrance as an annual milestone that provides us the opportunity to pause and reflect on the meaning of heroism—the willingness to put aside one’s personal concerns in order to serve the greater good.
Let us be grateful to those brave people and their families for their service to our country and to humanity.