Mike and I were privileged to be invited to speak at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas on January 16. Our host was Kevin Sullivan, former communications assistant to President Bush. Sean O’Keefe, NASA’s Administrator during the Columbia accident, sponsored the event. Also on hand were Bill Readdy (three-time space shuttle astronaut and former associate administrator at NASA) and Ron Castleman (regional director of FEMA).
The talk coincided with the 15th anniversary of the launch of Columbia on her final mission. Despite the bitter cold, the reading room was packed! Mike and I were very sorry that our friends from East Texas were unable to attend the event because of the icy roads. We did our best to sing their praises.
Sean kicked off the discussion by setting the context for the security concerns for the mission—only 16 months after 9/11 and with Israel’s first astronaut on board. He also provided fascinating insights into President and Mrs. Bush’s concerns and care for the families of Columbia’s crew after the accident.
Mike described the incredibly empty feeling he experienced when he stood at the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center on February 1, 2003 and realized that Columbia hadn’t shown up, and no one knew where the shuttle was or what had happened to it—only grasping that something must have gone horribly wrong.
Responding to a question from the audience, Mike outlined the challenges that launching a rescue mission would have entailed, had NASA known that Columbia was doomed. Sean vigorously affirmed that NASA would have launched a rescue mission had there been any indication that one was needed. Addressing the challenges of flying such a dangerous mission, Bill Readdy said, “There would have been a line of volunteers as long as the roster of the astronaut office to fly that mission.”
Mike and I also discussed the incredible support that the people of East Texas provided in responding to the immediate aftermath of the accident. We also discussed the seamless way that FEMA, NASA, and EPA led the federal response in the ensuing days.
The hour allotted for the discussion flew by!
And the fifty copies of the book that Mike and I had signed before the talk sold out within minutes. (Authors are always happy to see that happen!)
This interview with Mike and me appears in the January/February 2018 issue of “Texas Journey” Magazine, the publication of the Texas AAA. It encourages people to consider a visit to the Remembering Columbia Museum in Hemphill, Texas. Mike and I will be speaking there on February 1, 2018, the 15th anniversary of the Columbia accident.
Mike and I were invited to speak at the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation’s “Space Rendezvous” in Cocoa Beach, Florida in November this year. Our presentation was entitled “Columbia Recovery and Reconstruction: An American Story of Courage, Compassion, and Commitment.” It was the first time Mike and I had jointly given a talk, and what an audience it was—ASF board members, at least a dozen astronauts, former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, people who had worked on the Space Shuttle Program, and dozens of “civilians” for whom the space program forms an important part of their lives. Many of those present had flown on Columbia, supported her on the ground, or had been part of the search and recovery effort.
Mike opened with an overview of Columbia’s STS-107 mission and the aftermath of the accident. He recounted his experiences on Landing Day, as he awaited Columbia‘s return, and the horrible feeling of profound emptiness he experienced when he realized Columbia was lost.
Jonathan followed with a discussion of what the people in East Texas were experiencing at that same moment when Columbia‘s debris created a continuous cacophony of sonic booms and the wreckage began impacting the ground. Mike and Jonathan then talked about the mobilization efforts that began immediately after the accident, both at NASA and at the local level in Texas, and the overwhelming success of the recovery forces who worked for three months to find Columbia‘s debris in East Texas.
Mike described his experience in leading the reconstruction of Columbiaat Kennedy Space Center. He also talked with pride about preservation of Columbia‘s debris and the ensuing lessons-learned program that has turned Columbia into a living laboratory about the effects of uncontrolled hypersonic reentry.
Throughout the presentation, Jonathan and Mike invited audience members to share their experiences. Astronaut Jim Wetherbee discussed his challenges in leading the daunting task of recovering the crew’s remains. Administrator Griffin spoke about correcting the issues and flaws uncovered by the Investigation Board and returning the shuttle to flight.
The ASF provided a Facebook Live stream of the talk, which can be found here. (If this link does not work, please visit the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation page on Facebook, scroll down to “videos,” and look for the untitled video dated November 3.)