At the National Air and Space Museum

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.

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Mike and me with Discovery, February 11, 2018. (Jonathan Ward photo)

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!

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My family! My wife Jane and me; granddaughters Molly (pink coat), astronaut Samantha, and baby Charlotte; my daughter Rosey (dark coat) and her husband Jason; and my son Ken (blue shirt) and his wife Valerie. And Mike off in the corner, hopelessly outnumbered.

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.

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Not looking too bad, considering we had just spent 3-1/2 hours eating, drinking, and talking at Maggiano’s! Mike, “Pambo,” Robert, and me. 

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).

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Mike flashes a “thumbs up” to a colleague just before we go live.

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.”

 

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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.

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Charlotte and Mike Leinbach, and Suzanne and Al Sofge (Jonathan Ward photo)

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.

Stay tuned!

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Future astronaut Samantha. What will she be flying in 20 years? (Ken Ward photo)

Three STS-107 Tribute Videos: Part 3

Today I’m sharing the last of the three videos I produced in January as a tribute to the final crew of Columbia.

Bringing Columbia Home: STS-107 Recovery, Reconstruction, and Return to Flight: This eight and one-half minute video centers on rarely-seen EPA and NASA footage of the debris recovery operations in East Texas, activities inside the reconstruction hangar at Kennedy Space Center, and America’s return to manned spaceflight in the STS-114 mission of July 2006. The melancholy mood of the debris search becomes more determined during the investigation and finally ends on a triumphant note as STS-114 successfully completes its mission.

Boats on horizonPlease be aware that the video shows scenes of some of the wrecked pieces of Columbia  as they were found on the ground in East Texas and as they appeared in the reconstruction hangar. It is presented in a tasteful manner, but it may provoke strong emotional responses in some people.

On this day, the fifteenth anniversary of the accident, please pause to thank the Columbia crew for their sacrifice in the name of exploration. Also please thank the people of East Texas and the US who brought meaning to the loss of the ship and her crew by gathering the evidence needed to allow the Space Shuttle program to fly again.

 

Three STS-107 Tribute Videos: Part 1

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!

Today’s video is: STS-107 Preparation and Mission.

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.

Columbia ascent

“Columbia—Lessons and Legends of Recovery”

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.

Cabana ACCLLP intro.jpgKSC 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.

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Mike Leinbach (left), Dave King, and Gerry Schumann listen to Greg Cohrs. (Jonathan Ward photo)

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!

Aerospace America Article

In mid-November, I was surprised to get an email from astronaut Thomas Jones, a veteran of four Space Shuttle missions, requesting an interview. It was a surprise because I’m usually the one asking to interview astronauts, not the other way around! Tom attended the presentation that Mike and I gave at the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation earlier in the month, and it inspired him to write an article for Aerospace America, a journal published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

On November 17, 2017 Mike Leinbach and I met in Cocoa Beach with Tom, along with Mike Ciannilli, who directs NASA’s Apollo Challenger Columbia Lessons Learned Program. I was fascinated to hear Tom, Mike, and “Chach” discuss from their unique perspectives their thoughts about the Columbia accident, the recovery and reconstruction of the shuttle afterward, and the lessons Columbia holds for future manned space missions, both on NASA spacecraft and on commercial crew vehicles.

After the intense conversation, we adjourned to an Irish pub to swap happier stories!

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Mike Ciannilli, Tom Jones, Jonathan Ward, Charlotte Leinbach, and Mike Leinbach after an intense conversation! (Jonathan Ward photo)

Below is the link to the article that Tom wrote. I think you’ll agree that it’s a fantastic synopsis of the Columbia story and the need to reinforce the safety culture at NASA going forward.

“Their Mission Became Our Mission,” Aerospace America, January 2018

The Apollo Challenger Columbia Lessons Learned Program

One of the most positive outgrowths from the Columbia accident remains the Debris Loan Program. I have sung its praise in earlier posts, and for good reason. Another initiative underway has equal or greater positive potential.

Something more meaningful than studying the debris in order to design safer spacecraft? Yes. What about something to deal with some of the common root causes of America’s manned spaceflight accidents? To deal with them BEFORE they become big problems.

This is NASA’s Apollo Challenger Columbia Lessons Learned Program. (ACCLLP)

Never heard of it? That’s understandable, given its newness. But I hope that as it matures and gains traction within NASA, its value will be realized and its lessons made available even outside NASA organizations. The lessons NASA learned the hard way are widely applicable. Think about the value of open communications vs. stifled debate as just one example.

So what is the ACCLLP?

It’s a fully-funded and staffed NASA HQ initiative to teach all NASA and supporting organizations about the causes—and especially the common causes—of the three fatal accidents. And obviously, as the causes are discussed, the more important topic of their lessons learned are emphasized.

Back to open communications: Challenger and her crew were victims of stifled debate as surely as flawed hardware. Improvements to the hardware proved easier to implement than the organizational and cultural corrections based on that tough lesson learned. NASA improved its communications and management practices, but they eroded over the 17 years between Challenger and Columbia. We fell back into some bad habits: over-confidence, less hunger for fully understanding the potential for minor issues becoming major ones, and to a degree stifled debate. Columbia was victim to those practices just as surely as Challenger.

How does ACCLLP work and how can it help?

Mike Ciannilli (who I fondly call “Chachi”) is a former member of the shuttle launch team and one of the people who conducted aerial searches for Columbia’s debris. He created, developed, and now manages the ACCLLP for NASA and is 100% dedicated to its success. Mike has developed lessons learned programs and “teaches” them to the workforce at KSC and other centers. He routinely conducts tours of the Columbia Preservation room in the Vehicle Assembly Building each week. These reach a wide array of folks across all NASA Centers and missions, including civil servants, contractors along with the brand new commercial crew workforce—even NASA Space Act partners such as NASCAR. Mike ensures that these tours powerfully emphasize the lessons of the past and present, and their direct impact to the future.

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Mike Ciannilli with his beloved Columbia (photo courtesy Mike Ciannilli)

Mike is also creating the Agency’s largest lessons learned library with teaching materials from NASA and other organizations. It is the agency’s best advocate to not ignore or forget the past, but rather to learn from it.

A traveling road show took some key pieces of Columbia’s debris to the NASA Centers over a decade ago. Word has it that Chachi is creating a brand new and really cool concept to bring Columbia herself to the masses as we speak. Fireside chats featuring ‘graybeards’ talking about Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia have been held to full houses and garnering outstanding reviews. And other concepts to discuss lessons learned are being developed to help spread the word, including videos that would be made widely available. Mike is overloaded with requests, and loves it!

So if you’re currently involved in manned spaceflight (or unmanned spaceflight for that matter) and want to know more about this extremely positive outcome of NASA’s three fatal accidents, look up Mike. He’s based at KSC and would love to have you and your organization exposed to his work. I promise you’ll not only be impressed with his enthusiasm, but the lessons learned will be applicable and valuable for your people. There’s no doubt.

The Columbia Debris Loan Program

It’s been a while since I posted a new blog. No excuses, just apologies. Hurricane Irma certainly did a number on Florida, and all us residents are still dealing with the aftermath.

On a recent visit to the Columbia Preservation Room in the VAB (to show the debris to some ULA employees), Mike Ciannilli updated us on the continuing success of the debris loan program with some truly amazing statistics. I want to share his success with you here, but first please allow me some personal reflections.

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From left, Mike Leinbach, KSC Center Director Jim Kennedy, and Scott Thurston unveil the plaque commemorating the Columbia PReservation Office on January 29, 2004. (NASA photo)

When the reconstruction team proposed studying Columbia vs burying it (à la Challenger), we could not possibly have dreamed how successful and inspiring the outcome would be. With Administrator O’Keefe’s full support and encouragement, Scott Thurston crafted an in-depth concept for the program, wrote and released a Request for Information to industry to judge interest—and the rest, as they say, is history. THANKS, Scott.

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Astronaut Pam Melroy, who led the crew module reconstruction effort, with Amy Mangiacapra at the dedication of the Columbia Preservation Office on January 29, 2004. (NASA photo)

Once we knew definitively studying the debris was a good idea, the Columbia Preservation Office was officially dedicated (on the first anniversary of the accident) in its new home on the 16th floor of A Tower of the VAB. United Space Alliance’s Amy Mangiacapra was the first curator and held the position for 10 years. Alone, she cared for the debris, collected pieces requested for study, managed the room, escorted visitors, dealt with ceiling leaks, swept the floors, and did everything/anything required. She was Columbia’s caretaker, and she did it in a manner beyond what she (and we) considered a job. Columbia was her “work child”. Amazing. THANKS, Amy.

NASA created a full-time position for the office in 2014. Mike Ciannilli became the first NASA curator, and by any measure, is the perfect person to take care of Columbia following Amy. (As with the astronauts, we like to give each other nicknames. Because Mike bears a resemblance to “Chachi” Happy Days, we lovingly refer to him as “Chachi” or “Chach.”)

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Mike Ciannilli at the entrance to the Columbia Preservation Office in the VAB. (Jonathan Ward photo)

Not only does Chach administer the debris loan program, but under his leadership and that of KSC Center Director Bob Cabana, the Forever Remembered memorial was opened in the Atlantis building at the KSC Visitor Complex. Columbia’s forward window frames are in a display case for everyone to see and contemplate. They also got the Challenger families to embrace the concept, with the large sidewall piece of Challenger now occupying an adjacent case. Moreover, with the vision of the greater good that can come from studying past failures, in 2016 Mike created the “Apollo Challenger Columbia Lessons Learned Program,” bringing those hard-taught lessons to the workforce and others in hopes they won’t be repeated ever again. GREAT JOB, Chachi.

Finally, the statistics Chach and all of us are so proud to share: To date some 260 pieces of Columbia have been lent to academia and industry for study. As I write this, 12 pieces weighing over 1000 pounds are being studied to advance the understanding in how different materials and structures behave when subjected to the extreme conditions of hypersonic re-entry. And of particular pride, there are three individuals who used Columbia in their PhD dissertations in achieving the highest scholastic degrees in engineering and material science. That’s what I call success!!!!!!

In a very real sense Columbia continues her mission….