Columbia Accident Investigation Board Public Hearings Begin, March 6, 2003

One of NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe’s first actions after Columbia disintegrated on February 1, 2003 was to activate an independent investigative board. NASA had at least fourteen formal internal task forces and teams designated to respond to the accident and investigate technical issues. However, policy mandated the formation of an independent board after a significant incident and loss of the crew. This board named itself the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, or CAIB (pronounced kabe) soon after its first meeting.

O’Keefe asked Admiral Harold “Hal” Gehman to chair the board. Gehman had recently completed an investigation into the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole. Other members of the Board included leaders from the military, NASA, FAA, research institutions, and other experts.

One of the truisms of a catastrophic accident such as Columbia‘s destruction is that it is almost never due to a single piece of hardware failing. Complex systems like the space shuttle and commercial airplanes are designed and built with all sorts of fail-safe mechanisms and components. For example, if a guidance computer fails, there is a backup (and sometimes several) that can take over. History has shown repeatedly that it usually takes a cascading series of failures to cause the destruction of something like the space shuttle.

Those failures are not always mechanical. They are often compounded by breakdown of  processes and how the organizations and people work within the system.

Therefore, the CAIB was empowered to examine not only the physical causes of the accident, but also to look into any organizational, cultural, procedural, policy, design, or other factors that may have played a role.

So while NASA’s internal teams and task forces collected and analyzed the debris from the accident, looked into the telemetry that was received from Columbia in its final minutes, and ran checks on the history of the ship’s hardware, the CAIB interviewed personnel who were involved in various discussions and decisions prior to the accident.

The CAIB held the first of its public hearings on March 6, 2003. Space Shuttle Program Manager Ron Dittemore was one of the first to testify, and the CAIB questioned him at length about subject such as recent changes to program staffing that might have affected operational safety. Johnson Space Center director Jefferson Howell, like Dittemore, disagreed with any suggestion that NASA underestimated shuttle risks or that safety did not receive the highest possible emphasis. However, former Ames Research Center director Harry McDonald suggested that he believed NASA had moved too far toward considering the shuttles as “operational” vehicles rather than complex research and development spacecraft.

Testimony later in the week focused on issues such as whether the insulating foam on the shuttle’s external tank could absorb water and potentially freeze, making the foam heavier and thus more of a threat to the orbiter. Other witnesses spoke about the decision to fly two shuttle missions after Atlantis was struck by insulation on STS-112 in October 2002.

Although many of the points that were raised were difficult for NASA to hear, Administrator O’Keefe had made it abundantly clear that he wanted full and open cooperation with the investigation. The only chance NASA had of finding and fixing the issues that doomed Columbia was to bring everything out into the spotlight for intense scrutiny.

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Members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. From left to right, seated: Scott Hubbard, Dr. James N. Hallock, Dr. Sally Ride, Board Chairman Admiral (retired) Hal Gehman, Steven Wallace, Dr. John Logsdon, Dr. Sheila Widnall. Standing from left to right: Dr. Douglas Osheroff, Maj. General John Barry, Rear Admiral Stephen Turcotte, Brig. General Duane Deal,  Maj. General Kenneth W. Hess, and Roger Tetrault.

Reconstruction Begins

Just a few days after the Columbia accident, NASA’s management discussed where and how to reconstruct the debris from the ship that was being found in Texas and Louisiana. Telemetry from Columbia cut off more than 30 seconds before the accident, and the ship’s Orbital Experiments (OEX) recorder—akin to an airplane’s black box—might not have made it to the ground. There was a chance that the debris could provide clues about the cause of the accident and how the shuttle broke up.

On February 3, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe and his deputy, Bill Readdy, announced that Kennedy Space Center would be the site for reconstructing Columbia. Steve Altemus from the launch team volunteered immediately to set up and lead the day-to-day operations. Mike Leinbach was named to head the overall reconstruction effort, as the “up and out manager” a few days later.

The Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) hangar at the southeast end of the Shuttle Landing Facility runway was a perfect location—convenient, secure, and big enough for the task. NASA quickly negotiated a lease for the hangar—which is owned by Space Florida, even though it’s on KSC grounds—and got to work setting it up.

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The RLV hangar (foreground) at the southeast end of the Shuttle Landing Facility. (NASA photo)

The NTSB and Boeing Air Safety provided guidance in laying out a grid. NASA would “peel open” the orbiter so that its external surfaces were lying face-up on the hangar floor. The dimensions on the floor grid were 10% larger than real life, to give examiners room to walk around between the pieces of debris and examine them from all angles. NASA set up the outline of the orbiter as if the shuttle had been towed into the hangar nose-first.

 

Placing items relative to each other on the grid as they would have been on the orbiter enabled researchers to find patterns that might point to the cause of the accident, as opposed to damage that occurred after the vehicle broke up.

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The floor plan of the RLV Hangar.

Even though EPA and NASA were decontaminating the debris as it was collected in the field, NASA needed to plan for the possibility that some pieces of debris might come back with toxic hypergolic propellant residue. A decontamination area was set up near the receiving area. NASA also eventually used a second hangar—adjacent to the Apollo/Saturn V Visitors Center—to store large components made of “friable” materials that could cause respiratory problems if their particles or fibers were inhaled. This included sections of the shuttle’s payload bay doors and composite-overwrapped pressure vessels.

 

NASA set up a walled-off room at one side of the hangar. Here, astronaut Pam Melroy and her team of engineers and technicians would be responsible for reconstructing Columbia‘s crew module in three dimensions.

Materials for internal systems (power, hydraulics, miscellaneous plumbing, etc.) and the Spacehab experiments were stored in bread racks on the sides of the hangar.

Everything would be photographed, barcoded, and logged into a database when it entered the hangar. GPS coordinates had been taken for every piece recovered in the field. As the reconstruction team positively identified various components, they could use this information to target searchers to areas where critical items might be found.

NASA set up the hangar, established the operating procedures, and staffed the reconstruction positions within 10 days.

The first two truckloads of material arrived from Barksdale Air Force Base on February 14, the same day Mike Leinbach returned to KSC from leading the Rapid Response Team at Barksdale. Trucks brought more debris every other day for the next several weeks, and would continue arriving regularly until the last shipment on May 6.

KSC security special agents escorted every shipment, accompanied by representatives of other NASA centers, who wished to participate in the honor of bringing Columbia home one final time.

The hangar operated with two shifts per day, six days a week, with about 150 personnel per shift, as people began the massive job of identifying and studying tens of thousands of pieces of Columbia‘s debris.

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By March 11, 2003—less than a month after hangar operations began—nearly 34,000 pieces of debris were in the hangar, totaling 43,200 pounds, or roughly 19% of Columbia‘s dry weight. (NASA photo KSC-03pd-0638)

This is the first of many articles in the coming months about the reconstruction activities.

Schirra and Lovell tour the hangar

 

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Former astronauts Wally Schirra and Jim Lovell (at right) inspect a recovered elevon actuator from Columbia in the reconstruction hangar, March 3, 2003. Looking on with them are (from left) Mike Leinbach, Lisa Malone, Steve Altemus (kneeling), and Jon Cowart. (NASA photo)

One of the many things NASA does really well is attending to worker morale. Since the 1960s, the Space Flight Awareness program has helped workers at every level of the program understand the importance of their jobs and connect their roles to the “big picture” of manned spaceflight.

On March 3, 2003, barely one month after the Columbia accident, former astronauts Wally Schirra and Jim Lovell came to Kennedy Space Center to encourage to workers who were still grieving over the loss of Columbia.

Both men were well acquainted with the risks inherent in manned space flight. Schirra was one of the original Mercury astronauts and command pilot of the Gemini 6 mission, which had the first launch pad abort of America’s manned space program. When the engines of his Titan II booster ignited and then shut down, all indications in the capsule were that the vehicle had lifted off. Rules said that Schirra and Tom Stafford should have “punched out,” ejecting from the capsule. However, Schirra believed he had not felt any motion, so he stayed put. His gutsy call saved the capsule and allowed the mission to fly again a few days later. Schirra later commanded Apollo 7, NASA’s first manned mission after the fire that killed the three-man crew of Apollo 1.

Lovell had flown on Gemini 7, the first two-week spaceflight, as well as Apollo 8, the first mission to circle the Moon. Lovell was commander of Apollo 13 and was supposed to walk on the Moon. Instead, a deep-space explosion led to a harrowing several days in which the world watched anxiously and hoped that the crew would make it home alive.

Schirra and Lovell toured the hangar where debris from Columbia was being examined and reconstructed. Mike Leinbach recalled, “They thanked everybody in the hangar for their devotion to the cause. It was as close to a pep talk as you can have in that kind of situation. It was really good, almost like having your grandfather come and talk to you.”

The two men also visited several other sites at KSC to talk to people who were working on the remaining three shuttles. Later, they spoke to a gathering of KSC employees hosted by KSC Director Roy Bridges. They offered their thoughts on the accident and the future of the manned space program.

Lovell said he was at the airport when news of the accident broke. The prevailing mood he observed was not resignation, but rather one of loss. He said, “The public had become complacent with the routine of space launches, but every once in a while it comes back to remind us that this is a risky business. Everyone I talk to says this should not stop the program, we should find out the cause. We have an obligation now not just to our own country but our international partners.”

At the conclusion of the program, Schirra encouraged KSC’s team with Gus Grissom’s famous “Do good work.” Lovell added, “We have a great program. Keep charging. Don’t give up.”

Such words may seem trite to some people, but they were a much needed balm to the still-shaken workers at Kennedy Space Center.

In times of tragedy and self-doubt, it never hurts to be reminded that what you do matters—that it’s important to refocus and give your all, even when the situation seems hopeless or desperate.

Thanks to tens of thousands of people who each did their part as individuals and supported each other in their teams, the collective willpower of the NASA family got the shuttle flying again.

Columbia’s Nose Landing Gear

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Columbia‘s NLG (Boeing photo)

One of the most remarkable pieces of wreckage to make it to the ground after Columbia‘s destruction was her nose landing gear (NLG). The NLG was instantly recognizable to anyone who had worked with the space shuttles, and it was a sobering and saddening reminder of the once-proud ship and her crew. The NLG would have been the last part of Columbia to touch down on the runway had she made it home on February 1, 2003.

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Pat Adkins (left) hoses mud off the NLG at the Hemphill collection center. (Photo courtesy Texas Forest Service)

Someone found Columbia‘s NLG just inland from a cove on Six Mile Bay on the Toledo Bend Reservoir on February 18, 2003. The NLG arrived at NASA’s collection center at Hemphill, Texas in the bed of a pickup truck that afternoon. Pat Adkins, a quality inspector from Kennedy Space Center, serving on NASA’s Mishap Investigation Team, hosed down and scrubbed the mud off the once-pristine piece of the shuttle. The tires were deflated, the bead was burned off, and the steering actuator arm was missing. Adkins could see where one side of the strut had been exposed to the effects of plasma and hypersonic re-entry.

As with many of the other pieces of Columbia‘s debris, the sight of the landing gear was enough to cause some NASA workers to break down into tears. It was a “whack on the side of the head with a two-by-four” that caused people to confront the reality of the shuttle’s violent destruction.

Everyone from Kennedy Space Center who worked on Columbia‘s recovery and reconstruction had a similar encounter and reaction at some point in the process. No matter how “professional” you try to be, at some point your deepest emotions will come to the surface. It is an unavoidable part of our human reaction to such tragic events. One of the most remarkable parts of the story is that people were able to support each other through their individual and collective grief and then get on with the work of figuring out what caused the accident.

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The nose landing gear on the floor of the reconstruction hangar, March 7, 2003. (NASA photo KSC-03pd-0612)

The NLG arrived at the reconstruction hangar at Kennedy Space Center in early March, and was placed on the floor grid near the front of the vehicle.

The NLG is now in the Columbia Preservation Room in KSC’s Vehicle Assembly Building, one of the first items that visitors see upon entering the secure facility. There is a pan underneath the strut to catch hydraulic fluid that occasionally seeps from the piece. It’s hard not to think of the landing gear as a holy relic that still bleeds.

As with all of the other pieces of Columbia‘s debris on display, it serves as a stern reminder that spaceflight is extraordinarily difficult and very risky—every decision has consequences.

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The nose landing gear in the Columbia Preservation Room, February 1, 2004. (Photo courtesy Robert Pearlman, collectSPACE.com)