Last month, I was privileged to be able to speak at Spacefest VIII in Tucson, Arizona about the recovery and reconstruction of Columbia.
For those of you who haven’t been able to attend a Spacefest, it’s an incredible experience. You’ll meet Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle astronauts, planetary scientists, futurists, historians, artists, authors, and hundreds of everyday people who are enthused by space exploration. The wonderful people at Novaspace make this an experience you’ll never forget.
As the co-author of the upcoming book on the Columbia accident, I was invited to speak about the events of 2003. Joining me on the dais was astronaut Jerry Ross, who shared his first-hand accounts of working with the crew and in the search for the vehicle’s debris after the accident, as well as the near-miss he had on STS-27—the most heavily-damaged spacecraft ever to return safely.
I recorded the audio from the presentation and from the ensuing question-and-answer period. I’ve since incorporated a few more images and some video editing to help make the photos tell the story even more clearly. Jerry Ross graciously agreed to allow me to include his commentary in this video.
I am NOT a practitioner of “Death by PowerPoint.” You’ll need to have the audio turned on as you watch this presentation, as there are no bullet-point slides—none. It’s all photos and a few maps, which illustrate the story I tell.
The video is one hour long. I hope you’ll enjoy it and learn from what one audience member called “a moving and surprisingly inspirational presentation”!
Thanks to the tireless and incredibly efficient efforts of the Texas Forest Service, the US Forest Service, FEMA, EPA, and NASA, recovery operations wrapped up at the end of April and beginning of May in 2003.
From the middle of February through the end of April, the Type 1 and Type 2 wildland fire crews from the US Forest Service walked every square foot of an area larger than the state of Rhode Island in their search for debris from Columbia. They painstakingly searched forests, fields, briar patches, farms, ranches, swamps. They dodged bulls, avoided snakes, endured heat and cold, suffered through hailstorms, scratched bug bites, steered clear of suspected meth labs, missed their families, and slept in tents during their two to three weeks in the field. Grid searches turned up thousands of pieces of shuttle material that on average was about one square inch—and in many cases, smaller than a fingernail.
Air crews logged over 5,000 flight hours in their search efforts. Divers from the Navy, FBI, Houston Police Department, EPA, Texas Department of Public Safety, and the Galveston Police Department conducted more than 3,000 dives and spent more than 800 hours on the bottom of lakes searching for debris from Columbia. The overall water search effort covered twenty-three square miles of lake bed.
Nearly 25,000 men and women from almost every US state participated in the search operations. The combined effort was over 1.5 million man hours. Searchers recovered more than 84,700 pounds of material from Columbia, equal to about 38 percent of the vehicle’s landing weight. Most emotionally important, the remains of Columbia‘s crew had been recovered and returned to their loved ones.
It was the largest land search and recovery operation in United States history, and the first major incident under the jurisdiction of the new Department of Homeland Security.
Animated graphic showing the progress of the grid searches for Columbia‘s material along the 250-mile-long debris path from February through April 2003. (Courtesy Mark Stanford, Texas Forest Service)
The Palestine, Texas camp closed on April 18. A few days later, the Hemphill collection center closed. Search operations at the western end of the debris field continued for a few more weeks, until the number of pieces being recovered was less than one per grid. All ground operations in Texas ended on April 30, with the Nacogdoches camp closing on May 3 and the Corsicana camp closing the following day. Search operations moved to Utah on May 2 for eight days, as radar had tracked some objects falling off the shuttle during its flight over the state. However, no shuttle debris was ever recovered west of Littlefield, Texas.
NASA’s Space Flight Awareness organization sponsored a huge dinner at the Lufkin Civic Center on April 29 to celebrate the end of the search operations and to thank the local communities and agencies for their help. The scale of the event was impressive. NASA’s Ed Mango likened it to the celebration scene in the movie, The Right Stuff. Jan Amen from the Texas Forest Service reported, “Dinner was steak and chicken, green beans, rice, rolls, salad, pie, all prepared by the Diboll Country Club. Free drinks flowed freely.”
It was the kind of party that only Texans know how to throw.
Administrator Sean O’Keefe hosted the event for NASA, and Scott Wells spoke on behalf of FEMA. County judges and civic leaders from every county in East Texas were on hand. County Judge Jack Leath, Tom Maddox, Greg Cohrs, Roger and Belinda Gay, Marsha Cooper, and a host of other people represented Sabine County. Dignitaries from the various Native American Tribes and Nations attended. An astronaut sat at every table.
Astronaut Dom Gorie opened the ceremony with a heartfelt invocation that brought tears to the eyes of nearly everyone present. The Expedition Six crew sent a live video message from the International Space Station. A video about the Columbia crew followed.
O’Keefe and NASA’s Dave King, who was in charge of the recovery operation, presented plaques recognizing the nation’s appreciation for the contributions of the people at every table in the hall. The spouses of Columbia’s crew spoke of their gratitude to the people of East Texas for bringing their loved ones home again. Eileen Collins closed the ceremony on behalf of the next shuttle crew scheduled to fly in space.
It was a fitting and emotional close to a tumultuous three months. The people of East Texas had provided the nation and the world with an enduring lesson in how to handle a crisis with dignity, compassion, and competence. They met and worked side by side with astronauts, rocket scientists, engineers, technicians, and fire crews from across the country. In return, they had the satisfaction of knowing that they had gone far beyond the call of duty in the hopes of returning the American shuttle fleet to flight again.
At the end of the evening, after Jan Amen dropped off her last load of astronauts and families at their hotels in Lufkin, she wrote to a friend, “I absolutely lost it. I squalled all the way back to Cudlipp like a big fat crybaby. I’m whooped!”
[Portions of this blog post are excerpted from Bringing Columbia Home, (c) 2017 by Mike Leinbach and Jonathan Ward.]
Fourteen years ago, in early April 2003, we were about 2/3 of the way through recovering Columbia’s debris from Texas, although we didn’t know it at the time. But the number of debris trucks arriving at the reconstruction hangar at Kennedy Space Center had begun to tail off in the preceding weeks, so we knew at some point they’d stop altogether.
Two initiatives were being worked at that time. First, what to do with the debris, and secondly, how would debris found after operations ended in Texas find its way to us? What were the people finding items after the recovery operations ended to do with the material they found?
I’ll briefly address both now, with the intent to more fully discuss them in subsequent postings.
As stated in a previous entry in this blog, Administrator O’Keefe was instrumental in the decision to learn from Columbia’s accident and in particular, from the debris. Having gotten his unofficial “go” to develop the concept to study the debris, the task to actually put the concept into practice fell on a few of us in the hangar. I asked Scott Thurston, Columbia’s NASA Vehicle Manager, to develop the necessary plans. He did an outstanding job. He and a very small group debated where to store the debris, how to “advertise” that it even existed for study, the requirements for organizations to obtain select pieces, the logistics of lending it to them (it’s not easy lending government property to private organizations), and the proper approval authorities and documents. And, by the way, how to do this for many years to come – also not easy.
The results of their labor and Scott’s leadership are clear. The debris loan program is very much still alive, with several hundred pieces either actively out for study or with studies already concluded. The material is stored in a climate-controlled room in the Vehicle Assembly Building, also allowing easy access for employees to view it. It has a full-time NASA curator—Mike Ciannilli—who also developed and runs NASA’s Apollo, Challenger, Columbia Lessons Learned Program. Mike was very active in the debris recovery as an aerial searcher in Texas, and his passion for sharing the lessons makes him the perfect person for the job.
As with debris from Challenger, some pieces of Columbia continue to be found. To deal with this in Texas, a program involving local authorities is charged with taking calls from anyone finding pieces that may be from Columbia. They in turn call Ciannilli, who is responsible for determining the authenticity of the find and returning the material to KSC to join the other 84,000+ pieces of the ship’s debris.
The most “famous” piece found in this manner was a cryogenic tank from Columbia‘s fuel cell system that had been submerged in Lake Nacogdoches since February, 2003. A severe drought in the summer of 2011 lowered the lake level to the point that the tank was high and dry.
Numerous other pieces have been found by farmers, ranchers, hikers, etc. I suspect debris will continue to be found from time to time. We know for certain that three of the six main engine turbine pumps are still out there somewhere. But like the three that we recovered, they are no doubt buried deep in the East Texas or Louisiana dirt or at the bottom of a body of water. They will probably never be found.
We officially wrapped up recovery operations in early May, 2003. The vast majority of Columbia that we will ever find is already home. And some of it is being used to advance our understanding in materials and structures subjected to extreme conditions. The goal is to design future spacecraft that can better withstand such conditions. One such example is a seat design capable of withstanding very high torsional forces.
Columbia continues her scientific and research missions, well after her last space flight. That legacy would have made her final crew proud.
At the beginning of April 2003, the search efforts for recovery of Columbia‘s debris passed the halfway mark.
From the time operations went into full swing at the end of the third week of February, the Texas Forest Service had overseen the mobilization of more than 12,200 men and women from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. These firefighters came from more than forty states and Puerto Rico.
They entered the recovery zone through a processing facility set up by the Texas Forest Service in Longview, Texas. After an orientation on what they were looking for and the hazards they might encounter, the fire crews and their supervisory Incident Management Teams were deployed to camps in Corsicana, Palestine, Nacogdoches, and Hemphill. These towns were spaced roughly fifty miles apart along the debris field. The crews then spent two to three weeks conducting grid searches in their assigned areas. Then they were rotated out and replaced by fresh crews.
Their efforts produced astonishing results. As of April 2, 2003, the crews had searched every foot of an area of 426,844 acres (667 square miles). They had recovered 65,730 pounds of material from Columbia, equal to about 29% of the vehicle’s weight. Their efforts were also being supplemented by 37 helicopters, 8 fixed-wing aircraft, and salvage divers and surface boats in Lake Nacogdoches and the Toledo Bend Reservoir.
In this first incident response by the newly-created Department of Homeland Security, FEMA coordinated the federal agencies and funded the operations. NASA managed the overall search and provided technical assistance. The Environmental Protection Agency identified and handled hazardous materials, and transported all materials recovered during the search. The Texas Forest Service coordinated the air and ground searches. The US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the National Park Service provided the majority of the search crews and equipment. The US Navy and Coast Guard conducted the water searches.
Those are just some of the lead agencies. More than ninety federal, state, and local government agencies assisted in some way with the aftermath of the Columbia accident.
It was on the surface a collaboration of unlikely partners, but each agency brought its core expertise to bear in the largest and most remarkable inter-agency operation ever conducted.
Astronaut Jerry Ross told me during an interview for the book that “people first and foremost need to understand the greatness of the United States and its citizens. The United Sates has an incredible wealth of capabilities. To see the energy and expertise and materials and technical capabilities that descended on Lufkin within hours of the accident was so reassuring.”
In times when we hear people complaining about “government incompetence,” it’s helpful to remember that agencies are made up of people. People—not faceless agencies—get the work done. And we need to know that our federal and state agencies are made up of a lot of motivated and dedicated people who want to see our country be successful.
In East Texas, people make sure you are aware that nine people lost their lives as a result of the Columbia accident—the seven astronauts and two searchers.
Supplementing the massive ground search for Columbia‘s debris was an aerial search of the area on several miles on each side of the ground search corridor. The Texas Forest Service managed more than thirty contracted helicopters that were operating in the air over East Texas every day.
Pilots flew just above treetop level, as spotters searched for debris on the ground. The spotters generally included representatives from the Texas Forest Service, the US Forest Service, and NASA or its contractor United Space Alliance (USA).
The air searches were not without risk. Flying just above the treetops, there was often little room for a pilot to make an emergency landing if something went wrong. Makeshift power lines cropped up in strange places in the rural areas, posing hazards to air crews who attempted to land to pick up debris.
On the afternoon March 27, 2003, luck ran out for one of the air search crews. Pilot Jules “Buzz” Mier was flying his Bell 407 helicopter over the Angelina National Forest that day, accompanied by Charles Krenek of the Texas Forest Service in the front seat. In the rear of the helicopter were Matt Tschacher of the US Forest Service, Richard Lange from USA, and Ronnie Dale from NASA’s Safety and Process Assurance Branch at Kennedy Space Center.
Mier was an Army Vietnam veteran with thousands of hours of flight experience. He had a business operating air tours in the Grand Canyon. When he heard that the country needed experienced pilots for the Columbia search, he answered the call to service.
Krenek was a resident of Lufkin, Texas. He had twenty-six years of experience as an aviation specialist and a woodland firefighter. He was well-known and well-liked throughout East Texas.
After a stop for lunch and refueling, Mier and his crew took off at 3:15 on Thursday, March 27 for their second search mission of the day. About an hour into the flight, the engine suddenly quit. Mier, flying just above the treetops over Ayish Bayou, had no options for autorotating to a safe landing. The helicopter crashed nose-first into the crown of an oak tree and plummeted to the ground. Mier and Krenek were killed instantly when the cockpit was crushed. The three men in the rear seat were all badly injured, but they all survived.
Local resident William Dickerson and his nephew were fishing in the area when they heard the helicopter go down. They helped the injured men from the helicopter and to the nearest road, and then went to call for help. US Forest Service law enforcement officer Doug Hamilton and Sabine County Sheriff Tom Maddox were among the first responders. After wading back through the swampy area to the crash site, they realized they could not bring out the bodies and Mier and Krenek without assistance.
Felix Holmes and Marsha Cooper of the US Forest Service brought a bulldozer and several all-terrain vehicles to the site. Holmes knocked down pine trees with his dozer to create a makeshift path for the ATVs.
East Texas was in shock after the accident, losing a “favorite son” in the search for Columbia. Despite the grief, no one voiced regrets or blame. Rather, the community regarded it as a sacrifice to an important undertaking. It proved that the people of East Texas were doing their utmost to help NASA return to flight, no matter the personal cost.
The motto that had been circulating since the early days of the recovery effort now seemed even more poignant. Their mission became our mission took on a much deeper meaning for the citizens of East Texas. They were now inextricably part of the Columbia story—their own blood mixed with the blood of NASA’s astronauts.
The crash caused an immediate stand-down in air searches while the NTSB and the participating agencies investigated the accident and reviewed search procedures. The cause was traced to a faulty fuel control unit. Search procedures were revised to improve safety and eliminate unnecessary risks. Searches would have to be from a higher altitude. There would be no more landing to pick up debris; searchers would call in GPS coordinates for ground teams to make recoveries. Finally, air operations would be concentrated farther west in the debris field, which as less heavily forested than the eastern portion.
Now that they had given the lives of one of their own men to the cause, it was more critical than ever to ensure that the task was worthwhile—that these two men and the crew of Columbia had not died in vain. And indeed, the air searches were very productive, eventually accounting for 65 percent of the shuttle debris that ended up on the grid in the reconstruction hangar. They helped solve the mystery of the accident.
[Please see this excellent article by Christopher Freeze for more technical information about the accident.]
NASA established a list of “hot items” that it most wanted to find in the search and recovery of Columbia‘s debris. Many of these items were memory devices, items that might contain information about the state of the orbiter prior to the accident. Memory devices that NASA sought included the shuttle’s five general purpose computers, cameras, film, videotape, and one very special box – the Orbiter Experiments recorder, or OEX box. (This device was also known as the MADS recorder, short for Modular Auxiliary Data System.)
As the first spaceworthy orbiter, Columbia was instrumented with hundreds of sensors—strain gauges, temperature probes, and the like—to study the loads and stresses on the vehicle during ascent and reentry. These sensors fed into the OEX box, which recorded the data on magnetic tape. Columbia was the only orbiter with an OEX recorder. And quite coincidentally, the box was going to be removed after STS-107 in order to save weight as part of Columbia‘s refit to fly a supply mission to the International Space Station.
If NASA could find the OEX box or its data tape in the tens of thousands of pieces of debris that had landed across East Texas, the tape might solve the mystery of what caused the ship to disintegrate.
NASA sent the search leaders and debris collection center managers in Texas the photo shown above and asked them to keep their eyes open for this box. If it was found, they were to immediately call Dave Whittle, who was leading NASA’s Mishap Investigation Team.
On February 7, 2003, NASA asked Greg Cohrs, who was coordinating the US Forest Service’s search efforts in Sabine County, Texas, to provide a team for a special search in neighboring San Augustine County. The previous days’ searches in one area of San Augustine had turned up some gear that had been near the OEX box in Columbia‘s avionics bay. Unfortunately, the searchers did not find the box.
When the box failed to turn up after more than a month of ground searches, NASA feared that the box might have fallen into Toledo Bend reservoir, between Texas and Louisiana. The US Navy was already conducting sonar sweeps and dives in the reservoir, but had failed to find any debris. NASA asked them to concentrate in an area near the Texas shoreline in hopes that the OEX box might turn up.
On March 19, two US Forest Service contracted fire crews from Florida were grid-searching San Augustine County near Magnolia Church. Firefighter Jeremy Willoughby was searching in a pine stand on a gradual slope, when someone in the group spotted a metal box sitting on the ground near a small crater. They wrapped up the box in plastic sheeting, and it was placed in the back of the team’s collection truck.
Making their rounds for the day, Greg Cohrs and FBI special agent Terry Lane stopped by Magnolia Church, which was a staging area for the day’s searches. They looked in the back of one of the pickup trucks and saw a box wrapped in plastic sheeting. Recognizing that it could be a very significant find, Cohrs and Lane took possession of the box and drove it to the NASA collection site at Hemphill.
Greg Breznik was running the site for NASA. He unwrapped the box. It was almost pristine. Although there were holes where connectors had been torn off, the rest of the box looked immaculate. He could even read the government property tag on it. Breznik phoned Dave Whittle, who said, “I want it on my desk now!”
Cohrs and Lane returned to the Florida crews to tell them the good news about what they had found. Willoughby said that his crew unanimously decided that they would celebrate the find as a group accomplishment, and that the person who found the box would not be named.
On the other side of the world, the US began the invasion of Iraq that evening. MSNBC broke into its war coverage briefly to announce that “Columbia‘s black box has been found.”
NASA sent the box to Imation Corp. in Minnesota to clean the tape. The box then came to Kennedy Space Center, where the tape was duplicated, and then the tape went to Houston for analysis. As hoped, the OEX tape contained information about the state of Columbia right up to the second when the orbiter broke apart. This data, combined with the telemetry received during the mission and the analysis of the orbiter’s debris, confirmed that plasma had entered the leading edge of the ship’s left wing and melted it from the inside.
After the reconstruction phase ended, the OEX recorder went to the Columbia Research and Preservation Office in the 16th floor of the Vehicle Assembly Building. Several years later, it was sent to Johnson Space Center, where it can be seen in one of the administration buildings.
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.
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.