The Recovery Passes the Halfway Mark

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.

April 1 ground search status
Firefighters came from nearly every US state and Puerto Rico to search for Columbia’s wreckage. This map shows the number of wild land firefighters and support staff deployed by each state as of April 1, 2003. 

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.

Longview cots
Cots for transiting fire crews in the Longview staging camp. (Photo by Jan Amen)

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.

“Their Mission Became Our Mission”

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.

Krenek-Mier crew
The helicopter crew on the day of the accident. From left: Matt Tschacher, Buzz Mier, Richard Lange, Ronnie Dale, and Charles Krenek. (Photo courtesy “Boo” Walker)

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.]

Attitudes toward Challenger and Columbia

There are so many aspects of the recovery and reconstruction of Columbia to discuss no one book could possibly tell them all. And this observation is just from my perspective—one person out of the many, many people who contributed one way or the other to the overall effort. Other accounts would add many more personal stories and technical information. There are at least a dozen books on the accident from varying perspectives. One thing we all agree on is that the response of NASA to the loss of Columbia and her crew was vastly different from the loss of Challenger and her crew.

What are the factors that made this true? What evidence is there supporting it? And, most significantly, why is important? Briefly recalling the two accidents begins to tell the story.

Challenger was lost January 28, 1986. It was the 25th Shuttle flight, not yet five years into the program designed to be America’s single launch system. (Recall that at the time, NASA needed to fly as many commercial and military payloads as possible to cost-justify the shuttle.) Although the public was already starting to tune out the Shuttle program, this was a high-profile mission, with “Teacher in Space” Christa McAuliffe on board. The explosion was seen in person and on TV by millions of people. It was horrific. Most of us will never forget the images of the expanding plume of vapor, the solid rocket boosters careening out of control, and then the innumerable vapor trails of objects plummeting from the vapor cloud into the ocean.

Columbia was lost February 1, 2003. It was the 113th shuttle mission, and NASA had been flying space shuttles for more than twenty years. Most Americans probably didn’t even know the mission was being flown. People were blasé about the program and this purely research mission. If you hadn’t gotten up early on that Saturday morning in Dallas or along the debris path in sparsely-populated East Texas, all you saw later that day was a few videos of some trails in the sky. That accident was equally horrific as Challenger‘s. Just as many astronauts died. But precious few people outside of NASA or Texas remember the accident at all. (As crazy as it sounds, there aren’t even any public domain, NASA-taken photographs of the accident itself, since it happened far from the nearest NASA facility.)

The responses to the two by NASA leadership were as different as the missions themselves. The reason is most often described as “the mood of the agency was different.” In 1986 NASA wanted to move on after Challenger, put the accident behind us— writing it off as a one time horrible event—and get back to flying the Shuttle. In 2003 we knew very early after the loss it would probably end the program, but we still wanted to “find the cause, fix it, and fly again.” (We were bound by international treaty to finish the International Space Station.) But we also wanted to learn from the loss.

That’s the most significant difference between Columbia and Challenger. Learn from it. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen.

Bury challenger
Part of Challenger’s fuselage sidewall being lowered into the silo at LC 31/32. (NASA photo)

So much could be said about how this was manifested, but none of it could have happened without the strong leadership of Sean O’Keefe, NASA’s Administrator in 2003. His treatment of the loss, the crew families, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, and the ‘NASA family’ was nothing short of inspirational. It was exactly what we all needed.

 

The evidence of his leadership is easy to see. Columbia is preserved and used in research into the effects of hypersonic re-entry on materials and structures. It is available for study by any organization with appropriate research goals. It is stored in the VAB. It is also used to educate NASA and contractor employees about the risks of spaceflight and the need for everyone to be vigilant in doing their job the best they can at all times.

By comparison, Challenger is buried in an abandoned Minuteman missile silo at launch complex 31/32 on the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The debris fills the deep silo and the side rooms and is sealed with a concrete cap. It is locked away, only accessible in the most extreme cases (once for a Shuttle study on an issue with fuel system flowliner cracks). Not even a sign or marker exists to commemorate it.

This one example of the comparison of the response to the two is easy. To fully describe how it was so completely different would take another book on the organizational, political, and social influences existing at the two times.

And I’m certainly not the right person to do that or one to point fingers at the Challenger leaders and their decisions. But I am one to celebrate the response NASA had to Columbia. It was the right thing to do, lead by the right person to do it.

In later blog entries, we’ll dive deeper into the decision to preserve Columbia and the benefits that have already accrued from that decision.

Tables with debris for loan to JSC 3
Columbia Research and Preservation Office. Wing materials at right are packaged for loan to Johnson Space Center, where they were used to develop on-orbit heat shield repair techniques. (NASA photo, November 2003)

Columbia’s “Black Box”

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.

OEX before
Columbia‘s OEX recorder, as it looked before the accident. (NASA photo)

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.

Florida search crews on March 19 2003
Fire crews Florida 3 and 4 on March 19, 2003, near the site where the OEX recorder was found. (Jeremy Willoughby photo)

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.

OEX recorder and tape reels
The OEX recorder and tape reels in the Columbia Research and Preservation Office, February 1, 2004. (Photo courtesy Robert Pearlman/collectSPACE)

 

 

It Bears Repeating

 

I am pleased to report that Jonathan and I submitted the manuscript for Bringing Columbia Home to our editor yesterday.

We’ve been working on this book for nearly two years. In fact, it was two years ago today that we first met, at the funeral of our mutual friend, Norm Carlson.

The past two months felt very much like “Press to MECO” as we went through multiple reviews and revisions to meet our submission date. And just like after a successful Shuttle launch, now I can catch my breath and take the luxury of a little time to pause and reflect on the process that got us to this point and what it means to me.

What was the most significant learning I had in the process of helping Jonathan research and write Bringing Columbia Home? By far, it was how so many American citizens came together so willingly to help us when we needed it most.

Call it what you like. I like ‘the American Spirit.’

We were all hurting from the loss of Columbia. Most of all, the crew families were devastated. No more needs to be said about them.

Those of us in the NASA community were stunned and hurting.

The folks in East Texas were shocked and felt the loss deeply from the very beginning.

The 25,000 people from across America that came together over the course of three months to recover the astronauts and debris came to feel the loss just as much, and as soon as they joined the effort. There was no ‘ramp up’ in emotions.

I’m certain other people around the world felt an emotional connection to the accident as well.

What those of us involved in the recovery and reconstruction shared was something very special. It was the NEED to help. I know the same happens in war, though I have never personally experienced it. It is a need to help your country and comrades. Unique to America? No, but certainly true about us. It is something to be proud of, and to share.

This is precisely why the book will shortly exist.

ALL Americans should know this story of our country’s spirit at its best. They deserve to know it. I believe it’s especially important now when it seems like bickering and divisiveness have become a sort of new norm in our country.

If there’s a message of hope in a story about the aftermath of a terrible national tragedy, it is that Americans are at their very core a compassionate, caring, and committed people who will rise to a challenge and accomplishing incredible things.

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.

BoardPortrait

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.

First Advance Review for the Book

Mike and I have been working on our book for nearly two years now. The manuscript goes to our editor at Skyhorse Publishing on March 15. Everything is on track for the book to be released around Christmas this year.

We sent a courtesy copy of the manuscript recently to Sean O’Keefe, who was NASA Administrator at the time of the Columbia accident. Sean was an early and enthusiastic supporter of our project when we kicked it off, and he is very pleased with the results:

Mike and Jonathan have done a brilliant job capturing the depth of emotion and human engagement of what has been covered by others only as a technical investigative treatment. In doing so, they have made the story very personal for the thousands of people who invested themselves in this critical chapter of space exploration history. This is a valuable contribution about a defining moment that demonstrates NASA’s resolve and the selfless generosity of the American spirit.

—Sean O’Keefe, former NASA Administrator

We can’t wait to share this story with you!