Meeting the Heroes of Deep East Texas

Two years ago this week, I was in Hemphill, Texas to conduct interviews for “Bringing Columbia Home.” Belinda Gay and Marsha Cooper of Hemphill’s Patricia Huffman Smith “Remembering Columbia” Museum had graciously provided space in the museum to conduct the interviews, and had arranged for several dozen people to meet with me.

I flew into Houston, rented a car, and then made the two-hour drive to Hemphill. The flatlands and concrete jungle of the Houston area gradually gave way to a more scenic, wooded environment. (I made sure to stop for a Whataburger on the way north!) By the time I turned off at Lufkin and started heading east, I was now following in the path of the debris from Columbia as it broke apart in the morning sky on February 1, 2003. I tried hard to imagine what it was like on that chilly, foggy morning when the silence was pierced by the thunder of the reentry of the debris, and as thousands of pieces came to earth over a 250-mile-long path. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it. The forest grew thicker the farther east I drove, and I passed along the Sam Rayburn Reservoir before arriving in Sabine County and Hemphill.

IMG_1156I made the mistake of turning off my cell phone when I got out of the car to look around town. I had no cell service when I tried to power it back up again—and I was relying on it to show me the way to my motel! Fortunately, I managed to find my way there. My lodging for the night was in a beautiful set of cottages overlooking the Toledo Bend Reservoir. (The lack of cell service was even more of an issue for the NASA search teams back in 2003, to the extent that Verizon brought in temporary cell towers so that the searchers could communicate with each other and their search coordinators.)

Hamilton and Maddox
Doug Hamilton (left) and Tom Maddox

From the very first interview the next morning, I was overwhelmed with the graciousness and goodness of these people. They were all eager to share their stories of a pivotal time in their lives and in the life of their community. My first interviews were with Doug Hamilton, a law enforcement officer from the US Forest Service, and Sheriff Tom Maddox of Sabine County. They were among the first responders on the scene when debris from Columbia was positively identified—and the remains of the first of Columbia‘s crew were discovered.


Hemphill’s VFW hall

Later that morning I interviewed “Squeaky” and Byron Starr, the town’s funeral directors, who played key roles in recovering the remains of Columbia‘s crew with dignity and discretion. I also talked with Roger Gay, the commander of the town’s VFW at the time of the accident. The VFW hall would become the focal point of activity for the thousands of searchers who descended on Hemphill for the recovery of the ship and her crew.

The afternoon was reserved for speaking with some of the townspeople who volunteered to do anything they could to help in the recovery. Dwight Riley was 65 years old in 2003, but he didn’t let his age interfere with searching the woods. He recalled finding a “Lift-the-Dot” type of snap lying on the ground in the woods and wondering, “Where did that come from? Was it on a harness, or a wall, or a uniform? How did that come from space to land here?” As he reflected on the events of that February, he broke into tears, saying that it was the most rewarding thing he’d ever done in his life.

Mrs. Hivie McCowan, now 90 years old, told about hearing the horrible noise on that fateful morning. She recalled that the local authorities asked everyone to search their property for pieces of the shuttle, but she was afraid that she might encounter remains of the crew. She found a large piece of metal frame from Columbia in her back yard. She was one of the many people who volunteered to serve food to searchers at the VFW Hall. This quote from her interview illustrates what the experience was like for so many people:

I handled more tea than I’ll ever handle in my lifetime. And the people that I served, you wouldn’t want anybody to be any nicer. The guys that come through, they seemed so nice and mannerly. I never heard a foul word or nothing come out of all them men’s mouth that come through. And you know, usually somebody’ll act up. But they didn’t. And I was serving tea. They had sweet tea and they had, you know, tea without sugar, unsweetened. So I got to the place to let ’em know what I was serving. I’d just, I’d say “Sweet tea,” and they’d come to me. I’d say, “Sweet tea,”–and the other was serving other tea–I’d say, “Sweet tea? Sweet tea?” I said “Sweet tea” so long, until they named me ‘Sweet Tea.’ Dr., let me see, what was his name–. Dr. Somebody out of Beaumont, I forget his name. He called me Sweet Tea first, and then the rest of ’em went to calling me Sweet Tea, and I was just serving tea. I helped serve food, too. It was awesome.

The next two days of interviews included other participants in the search, both officials and volunteers. Jamie Sowell of the US Forest Service spoke about his organizing and leading search teams into the woods during the first two weeks of February. School teacher Sunny Whittington described how she was inspired to have her elementary school class make hundreds of sandwiches to feed the searchers, each lunch containing a handwritten note of encouragement from one of the children. Another of the searchers I spoke to that week recalled the note in his lunch bag, and he broke into tears telling me about how deeply meaningful that gesture was to him in such a difficult time.

Stakes mark a shallow depression still remaining from where Columbia‘s “nose cone” crashed through the trees and impacted the ground outside Hemphill. Belinda Gay and Marsha Cooper have been actively advocating to turn this site into a memorial park. (Jonathan Ward photo)

Felix Holmes of the US Forest Service was involved in the recovery of Columbia‘s nose cap, which was found in the woods outside Hemphill. He bulldozed a clearing so that a helicopter could attempt to airlift the structure out of the woods. When high winds thwarted the airlift, he bulldozed a path for a four-wheeler and trailer to get back to the site. Holmes was also instrumental in creating a path in Ayish Bayou for rescuers to reach the site of the fatal search helicopter crash in March 2003.

Greg Cohrs Olen Bean
Greg Cohrs (left) of the US Forest Service and Olen Bean of the Texas Forest Service.

Greg Cohrs of the US Forest Service was pressed into service on the morning of February 1, 2003 to try to bring order out of the chaos of the initial response to the accident. Cohrs went on to coordinate the search operations in Sabine County in the first two weeks of February, during the search for the crew’s remains. He also continued to be involved throughout the debris recovery effort that lasted until late April. He kept a detailed journal of his day-by-day activities during that period. He graciously shared that with us, and he became a key consultant—and good friend—to Mike Leinbach and me as we put the book together. We believe that Greg’s accounts of the daily struggles and the highs and lows of the search operations truly make “Bringing Columbia Home” a gripping account of the human drama of that intense period. We’ll forever be indebted to Greg for his contributions.

Marie Nelson and me

Miss Marie “Little Granny” Nelson was overwhelming in her kindness toward me. She brought me a chocolate cake one day, banana pudding another day, and gave me a blue sequined cowboy hat and Texas flag shirt another day. She was yet another of the volunteers who helped make life easier for the searchers. She recalled talking to National Guardsmen who were bivouacked in the gym of Hemphill’s high school. One of the guard asked her, “Ma’am, where are we?” She went to the library and photocopied maps of the area to help these people get their bearings relative to the rest of Texas.

Mike Alexander was another volunteer searcher. He recalled the emotions of the search effort, and also talked about how the town responded. One of the ways that townspeople helped was to open their homes to other volunteers who had no place to stay during the search, as there are few fish camps or motels in the area. He recalled talking to one man on his crew, Dan Sauerwein, who worked at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at Johnson Space Center. Sauerwein had driven up from JSC to help with the search and was sleeping in his car. Alexander told him, “You’re staying at my house from now on.”

One of the great coincidences that made putting this book together so powerful for me is that Dan Sauerwein later contacted me via Facebook. He recalled Alexander’s generosity but had lost touch with him over the years. I was able to put the two of them back in contact with each other.

Belinda Gay, Jonathan, and Marsha Cooper.

Throughout this overwhelming period of interviews, Marsha Cooper and Belinda Gay kept me organized and also filled in a lot of details. They were of course both deeply involved in the recovery. Belinda solicited the food donations and coordinated the volunteers who served somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 meals at the VFW during February 2003. Marsha was in the first search teams to go into the woods after the accident to look for Columbia‘s crew, and she coordinated much of the interface between the media and the US Forest Service during the recovery operations.

Gay and Cooper were also the driving force behind establishing the Columbia museum in Hemphill—an incredible test of perseverance in overcoming bureaucracy and people who wished simply to forget that the accident ever happened. Their efforts will, I believe, ultimately be as important in preserving the legacy of Columbia as those of the NASA officials who preserved Columbia‘s debris for future study.

One afternoon, we drove out to see where some of the searches had taken place. We visited the “nose cone” site, where Columbia‘s reinforced carbon-carbon nose cap and its supporting structure came to earth. Gay and Cooper have been actively trying since 2003 to turn this into a National Memorial to commemorate Columbia and the deeds of the people of East Texas in recovering the ship and her crew. They even solicited design proposals from architecture students at Texas A&M University.

Columbia crew resting placeWe also stopped by the site where the first of Columbia‘s crew were recovered on the morning of the accident. The landowner erected a simple cross saying “American Hero” shortly after the accident. It is a stark and sobering reminder of the human cost of space exploration.

My short visit to Hemphill was one of the most moving experiences in my life. I left there forever changed—completely overwhelmed by what everyday people can do when suddenly thrown into responding to an extraordinary event. I hope that “Bringing Columbia Home” will pay some small measure of homage to these incredible people who are truly American heroes.

The 4th quarter 2017 issue of “Texas Roadways” magazine will be doing a feature story on Hemphill and the Remembering Columbia Museum.

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.

Leinbach Kennedy Thurston unveil plaque 02-01-04
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.

Melroy and Mangiacapra 02-01-04
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.”)

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….

Hurricane Harvey

The scenes of floodwaters and devastation in Houston and southeast Texas are almost unbelievable.

We know that this is an awful time for everyone in the affected area. Our words, thoughts, prayers—all are completely inadequate to express our sorrow for what our friends are going through right now and our hopes that you are all okay.

If there’s any consolation to be had, it’s that Texans have repeatedly demonstrated themselves to be an incredibly strong and supportive people. No doubt the same spirit of tenacity, caring, and dedication that you demonstrated during the Columbia tragedy will also see you through this disaster.

Our hearts are with you.

East Texas Comes to Kennedy Space Center

On August 12, 2003, Roger and Belinda Gay came to Kennedy Space Center from Hemphill, Texas. It was an opportunity for NASA to thank them for their overwhelming service in the recovery of Columbia and her crew.

When Columbia broke up over East Texas on February 1, 2003, the remains of her crew came to Earth in Sabine County, as did much of the debris from the crew module and the forward end of the orbiter. The population of the small town of Hemphill in Sabine County tripled overnight, as thousands of people came to town to search for the crew. The sudden influx of people was far more than the few restaurants and motels in town could accommodate.

Roger Gay was the commander of Hemphill’s Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post, and his wife Belinda was chair of the VFW Ladies Auxiliary. On the day of the accident, the local incident command team asked Roger if the VFW hall could provide some sandwiches for the searchers. He quickly became overwhelmed as the number of searchers skyrocketed. He asked his wife Belinda, who had been helping search the woods for Columbia‘s crew, to coordinate efforts to help feed and support the searchers.

Over the next several days, Belinda made hundreds of phone calls to ask the people of Sabine County and the neighboring communities for help. The outpouring of support was the stuff of which legends are made, and we talk about it at length in our book. All told, the community provided and served somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 meals to the search teams in Sabine County, at no cost to the taxpayer. The people of Sabine County also invited searchers to stay at their homes, did their laundry, bought them dry socks…the list goes on. Strong bonds were formed between the searchers and the people of the community.

Belinda knew that something of tremendous significance had happened in that time. “I can’t explain it except to say that we witnessed a miracle in action,” she later told Spaceport News. She felt called to preserve the memory of Columbia‘s crew, the two recovery workers who died in a helicopter crash, and the good works of the people of East Texas. Before the summer even started, she and her friend Marsha Cooper from the US Forest Service began investigating options for creating a memorial park in Sabine County.

NASA invited the Gays to visit Kennedy Space Center that summer. On August 12, they visited one of the Orbiter Processing Facilities and met some of the workers who had prepared Columbia for her last mission. Then they toured the hangar where work on reconstructing Columbia‘s debris was wrapping up.

Belinda told Spaceport News, “We needed to come here. Seeing the hangar was a very emotional experience and gave us some sense of closure.”

Gays visit reconstruction hangar
The Gays visit the Reconstruction Hangar on August 12, 2003. From left, Roger Gay, his son Chad, daughter Andrea, wife Belinda, and Belinda’s cousin Milt Watts. (Spaceport News, September 5, 2003)

KSC “Launch Director” Tours

About 18 months ago I was asked to support the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in their overarching goal for their guests of being educated while being entertained. I was honored to be considered for it, given the other major ‘attractions’ that further that goal. Heroes and Legends—the re-envisioned Astronaut Hall of Fame—recently opened in the original Debus Center. A new Mars exhibit will soon begin construction. Honoring the fallen astronauts in Forever Remembered and the tribute to the Apollo 1 crew are moving reminders of the risks associated with spaceflight. By far, however, the KSCVC celebrates the successes and contributions to mankind that the space programs have provided for over 50 years. Attendance promises a full day of activities and memories unlike the typical theme parks in Orlando.

My small part is called, cleverly, the Launch Director Tour! A few times each month, I take a group on a personal tour of the Atlantis attraction, the Launch Control Center, launch pads, and conclude at the Apollo Saturn V facility. In the four-hour tour we discuss not only those specifics but get into anything the group wishes to know more about. As I tell them at the outset, “If you leave here today and wish you had asked me a question but didn’t, bad on you! My job is to make your time here as full as possible. Answering your questions is an integral part of that.” And the groups aren’t shy!

MIke at LD console
At my Launch Director console in Firing Room 4. (Photo by Jonathan Ward)

Since they are truly ‘avid space fans’ the questions asked are just terrific. Technical specifics of the Shuttle, the early manned spaceflight programs and the current and future ones, most memorable moments, most difficult launch, and the questions from kids are special! We also always have foreign guests on the tours and their perspectives on America’s programs offer unique and memorable interactions.

I could write a book in itself on the questions I get on my tours—they are that good. My personal favorites generally fall into three categories. 1: What is the future of manned spaceflight? 2: How I made the final launch decision. 3: My favorite launch.

Discussing the future always comes up. As do the politics behind decisions. This discussion can always take unexpected turns! But briefly, I express my view that Mars should not be the next goal of our manned efforts, but establishing a permanent base on the Moon. Why? We need to learn to live on another body before we take off on the exponentially more difficult trip to Mars. The Moon is the next logical step. Not as sexy as Mars, but vastly more logical in our progression off Earth.

I made the final launch decision by thinking about my seven friends on the rocket and asking myself if I’m ready to commit them to the most risky thing they have ever done. The astronauts are real people with real lives, real families, real children, spouses, parents. How can I give a “go” without considering their families? This was always part of my final decision, but became even more paramount, if that’s possible, following Columbia.

My favorite launch is answered two ways: the most difficult and the most unexpected. The most difficult was STS-107, Columbia’s final mission. Why? The book has more detail, but we had a security scare just before liftoff that had me holding onto my console to steady my hands, literally. Just sixteen months after the attacks of 9/11, and with an Israeli astronaut on board, Columbia was recognized as a prime terrorist target. Liftoff was fine, but foam damage during ascent doomed the mission and crew. The launch with the most unexpected event was STS-105 and the need to launch earlier than planned due to impending bad weather. I addressed this in an earlier posting. Check it out.

My all-time favorite question, however, came from a kid from England, maybe ten years old. She asked, “How does an orbit work?” WOW! From a kid came a question demonstrating great thought, curiosity, and desire to learn. The goal of the whole tour concept had come true in spades. Fortunately, luckily, I could work my way through it, but first I asked the group how many people knew the answer. Of the 35 people, 2 knew. I asked them to help me answer. With my pen as a prop we demonstrated the balance between gravity and speed and the little girl’s eyes lit up. She got it. That’s why we do the tours. It was perfect.

I invite all of you to join us if you ever find yourself at the KSC Visitor’s Complex. Advance reservations for the tour are recommended—and can be made at this link. The tour frequently sells out weeks in advance. If not on my tour, the overall KSCVC experience promises not to disappoint in any way.

Why Is the Book Taking So Long?


People often ask me: “Why is the Columbia book coming out in January, when you and Mike finished writing it in March?”

The short answer is that the publisher needs a lot of time to ensure that you, the reader, will get a quality product.

And as eager as you readers are to see the book come out, Mike and I are doubly impatient to put the book into your hands. But we want to make sure that you get the best possible book. The story of Columbia deserves to be treated with dignity and presented in a first-class manner, so we took our time to do it properly from the outset.

I also get a lot of questions from aspiring authors about what goes into writing and publishing a book. Let me take a few minutes to summarize what the past two years has looked like for us.

As noted previously, Mike and I agreed on the overall subject and started working on scoping the book in April 2015. Interviews with key participants in the recovery and reconstruction convinced us that we needed to significantly expand the scope of the book to tell a broader story. By early September 2015, we felt we had the scope pretty well nailed down, and we started outlining the book.

Even before we began writing the book in depth, we spent nearly nine months searching for a literary agent and exploring possible publishers. Starting in September 2015, we wrote at least fifteen iterations of a book proposal and a sample chapter (which later became Chapter 1 in the book). In March 2016, we found a literary agent who was enthusiastic about helping us get our book published. Several publishers expressed interest, and we spent two months working out terms with the publisher who we thought would do the best job with the book. We also insisted that the book be released before February 1, 2018, which will be the fifteenth anniversary of the Columbia accident.

We finally contracted with Skyhorse Publishing in August 2016, nearly a year after we started the search process. Meanwhile, our research was still going on—eventually totaling more than 100 hours of interviews which generated over 600,000 words of interview transcripts! But we couldn’t really write the book until we ensured that we and the publisher were in complete agreement on the length of the book and how we intended to treat the subject matter. Our manuscript due date was set in the contract as March 15, 2017.

Writing the first draft of the manuscript took from September 2016 through January 2017. (For those interested in the writing process, that involved writing an average of 1,200 words per day, every day, during that period.) We solicited technical reviews for accuracy from many of the key sources for the book as we went along. Each chapter went through multiple revisions—correcting, tightening, expanding, fact checking, etc. (For those really interested in the mechanics of book writing, I used an app called Scrivener for managing all the reference material and writing the drafts. I exported the drafts into Word once they were ready for review.)

When the first draft of the entire book was complete, we sent the manuscript to several professional writers and editors to ask for their feedback. Their reviews took us into early February. Working with suggestions from the reviewers, we decided that we needed to re-write much of the book to make Mike’s part of the story even more personal by putting his experiences in first person rather than third person. And we needed to shorten the book by 10 percent, a daunting process that resulted in a much tighter read. Writing that second draft took us another month. Then came choosing the best representative photos out of hundreds available, writing the captions, and the detailed work of double-checking the end notes.

That brought us to our submission deadline in mid-March. We beat the due date in the contract by two days.


Now the ball was in our editor’s court. The typical editor these days is working on about a dozen books simultaneously, all of which are in different stages of production. During the contracting phase, the publisher decides which “catalog” the book will be released under. In our case, it was Skyhorse’s Fall 2017 catalog, which covered books to be published between October 2017 and February 2018. The editor works backward from the release date in the catalog to determine the milestone dates. In our case, the book needed to be completely ready to go into production by the end of July this year.

We received our editor’s comments on the manuscript in mid-June. Thanks to all the time we spent having other reviewers go over the book, our editor had very minimal changes to our initial submission. We swapped the order of two chapters, moved four short sections from one chapter to a couple of other places in the book, and that was about it. Next, Skyhorse’s copyeditor reviewed the book for formatting, typos, grammar, consistency, etc. Again, very few changes needed to be made, and that process wrapped up about ten days ago. That was the final opportunity to make any substantive changes to the book.

This week, we received the “interior sample”—the first ninety pages of the book, so we can see how it will look when it’s typeset. Our editor wanted to be sure we liked the layout and overall look of the book.

Screen Shot 2017-07-21 at 3.07.27 PM
One page of the interior sample.

One thing that came up during the review of the interior sample was finally nailing down the subtitle for the book. You may be surprised to learn that authors don’t always get to choose the titles for their books. The author will suggest a title, but the editor will frequently recommend a different title that might be more likely to grab potential readers’ attention or show up better in online searches (“Search Engine Optimization,” or SEO). So we had a few exchanges with the editor about ideas for the subtitle for our book this week before we settled on one that we all agree summarizes the book in about ten words. Not an easy task.

The final pre-production phase, which should be in the next week or two, will be for us to review the galley proofs. This is a pdf of exactly how the book will be typeset, page by page, line by line. The authors have five days to review and approve it. Changes are very tightly controlled and limited to correcting errors. You need to do everything humanly possible to avoid making any changes that will affect pagination. And the contract allows the publisher to charge the author for every word change that’s not an error correction—so you know they’re serious! Also at this point, an indexing service will generate an index for the book.

Then the book goes into production. Mike and I essentially have no further input into the book from that point forward. Although the official release date is January 2, 2018, our editor assures us that we will have books in hand several weeks before that for us to sign and ship to people who pre-order from us!

So that’s the story of the book.

So far.

Sharing the Story at Spacefest VIII

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.

Here’s the link to the talk on YouTube.

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”!

Jonathan and Jerry q and a
Jonathan Ward and Jerry Ross answer audience questions at Spacefest VIII. (Photo by Brad McKinnon)

Required Changes

A lot has been written about the recovery from the Columbia accident in terms of changes we needed to make to get back to flying the Shuttle again. In general, the changes fell into two categories. One bucket contained changes to hardware, the other were changes to management practices.

In the early summer of 2003, we didn’t know how much time we’d eventually have to make these changes—just that we’d take whatever time was necessary to get them done, and with the confidence we did them right. But based on the recovery from the Challenger accident of 1986, we figured we wouldn’t be flying again for a couple of years. Could be longer; could be a little quicker. But the charge to all of us was to get the work done correctly, first and foremost. Sort of like resolving a problem in the final throes of launch countdown – solve the problem first, then look up at the clock and see if you have any time left in which to launch.

That’s not to say we were lackadaisical about it. Hardly. We were well aware of the need to get flying again to the ISS. But once again, it was ‘schedule awareness’ vs ‘schedule pressure’. There was a difference from the time critical launch environment of course where technical problems were solved based solely on data, and bad decisions couldn’t be recalled. In the recovery period, lengthy, philosophical debates were fairly common. But decisions needed to be made and progress in the improvements needed to be real.

The foam loss problem on the external tank needed to be fixed. Adding the capabilities to inspect the Orbiter’s tiles and effect some level of repair prior to re-entry was also necessary. These were obviously the top two flight hardware upgrades undertaken. But each Project (Orbiter, ET, SRB, Ground Processing, etc.) was asked to essentially recertify their existing system as flight-worthy, or suggest upgrades aimed at improving safety margins. These suggestions would be debated at the Program-level change boards and either accepted for implementation (and funded) or not.

Changes weren’t too widespread for us at KSC and the Ground Processing directorate. For the most part, our work practices on the flight hardware were mature and adequate. Extra care was to be taken when working on the External Tank’s foam to avoid damage, but nothing too onerous.

One significant finding in the accident review that we were responsible for correcting was the inadequate ascent imagery. As you may recall, on Columbia‘s final launch one ground tracking camera was inoperable, another was out of focus, and the just sheer number of assets documenting the critical portion of ascent couldn’t guarantee the full suite of images necessary to help resolve issues. As a result, we undertook a complete review of the ‘imagery system’ composed of tracking video cameras, still photography, high-speed engineering film assets, and the Operational Television System (pad cameras). We needed to be sure we had enough visual documentation to address issues, and have confidence on launch day the assets were working and could ‘see’ the vehicle. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) even recommended we have Launch Commit Criteria (LCC) for the system. More on that in a moment.

In addition to improving the visible launch documentation we needed some sort of long-range tracking system that could detect issues long after ground-based cameras effectively lost sight of the vehicle. Later – the C-band radar system. Likewise, on-orbit imagery needed to be understood and policies firmed up to enlist help from the intelligence community if needed.

C-band radar dish
This 50-ft. C-band radar dish was installed near Haulover Canal north of the KSC launch complex, as one of three radar dishes used in the new Debris Radar System. The other two were on ships. (NASA photo)

For the sake of brevity, the final ground-based system we installed was one of guaranteeing adequate views at least through SRB separation, from three independent positions, and from both north of the pad and south of the pad. We needed close-in views, mid-length (2-5 miles), and longer-range views from 10 miles or beyond. No distance requirement was set, just that we had these three ‘zones’ covered. Obviously, siting the individual assets would be case-dependent. At least two cameras at each location added to the certainty of coverage. The status of each would be reported to the responsible system engineer on the launch team and relayed to us. They would be committed for launch during the hold at T-9 minutes.

What about the CAIB launch commit criteria requirement? What about clouds obstructing one or more views? What about night launches? Good questions.

The CAIB did not specify what type LCC they wanted, although in informal talks they were going after specific camera views and operability. Given the uncertainty of guaranteeing views, I opted to enact an LCC based solely on the system operating properly. The issue of adequate views (cloud coverage, one or more specific cameras being down, etc.) was left to judgment on launch day. That decision would be made jointly by me (as Launch Director) and the Mission Management Team chairperson. The CAIB accepted the idea, so we pressed on with buying and installing an elaborate collection of video and still cameras located north and south of the pad. And we installed a control system for the cameras close to or at the pad. It was that control system that had the LCC. On launch day, the pre-launch MMT chair and I would get information on the views we would get during ascent and would decide if we’d launch with anything less than the full complement.

We had a requirement to launch during the light of day for the Return to Flight mission. That mandate remained in place until we had confidence the foam loss issue was resolved, AND that the radar system could detect debris issues regardless of daylight. We relaxed the lighted-launch requirement starting with STS-116 in December 2006, the first night launch of a Shuttle since the Columbia accident.

The system proved to be a great addition to the safety for the astronauts and the vehicle. Never again would the vehicle be hidden from view during ascent. We had enough cameras to make up for one or two not working as designed and had all angles covered. Ground-based imagery never caused a scrub and always provided clear views of the vehicle – and plenty of them.

The Smoking Gun

The exclamation point that provided closure to the Columbia accident investigation was independent of the analysis of Columbia‘s debris and its data recorder.

Two days after the February 1, 2003 accident, the NASA Accident Investigation Team contacted the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) near San Antonio for assistance in the accident investigation. SwRI had conducted previous studies for NASA on the effects of impacts of much smaller pieces of foam, cork insulation, and ice on shuttle tiles. NASA wanted incontrovertible proof that foam from the external tank was capable of inflicting mortal damage on the shuttle’s thermal protection system.

That foam could damage the wing seemed counterintuitive on many levels. How could a piece of lightweight insulation— about the density of Styrofoam and weighing less than two pounds—fall off the tank and cause that kind of damage? And wasn’t it traveling about the same speed as the shuttle?

In fact, analysis showed there was a significant velocity difference between the shuttle and the foam at the time of impact. NASA estimated that the shuttle was traveling faster than 1,500 mph—and accelerating—when the foam fell off the tank. After falling off, the foam immediately and rapidly decelerated due to air resistance. The block slowed to about 1,000 mph in the 0.2 seconds between when it came off the tank and when the shuttle’s wing impacted the foam. The relative difference in speeds between the shuttle and foam was therefore more than 500 mph.

The piece of foam that struck Columbia was four hundred times larger than the pieces tested previously by SwRI. Using a special compressed air cannon, SwRI planned to simulate the collision by firing foam blocks at more than 500 mph into samples of shuttle tiles and wing leading edge panels. High-speed cameras photographed the test firings and impacts, and over two hundred sensors measured the effects of the collisions.

By the time the equipment and procedures were ready for the first test on the landing gear door, the investigation had already narrowed its focus to the wing’s leading edge as the impact area. SwRI ran its test anyway using a landing gear door—one borrowed from Enterprise and subsequently covered with silica tiles—to check out the test equipment and processes. As expected, a grazing impact of foam, akin to what would have occurred in flight had the foam hit the underside of the wing, caused only minor damage to the tiles on the landing gear door.

Space shuttle wing leading edge panels are large, expensive, and made to order. The reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) material also wears and becomes more brittle over time, so SwRI could not use newly manufactured panels to get an accurate assessment of potential damage in its impact tests. The test panels would have to come from the wings of Discovery and Atlantis, the two orbiters that had flown about as many times as Columbia.

NASA decided to check out the test process first using Fiberglas leading edge wing panels from Enterprise, which was not designed to fly in space. Several test shots at Enterprise’s Fiberglas panels—which were stronger than the RCC panels on the flightworthy shuttles—produced scuff marks from the foam blocks, but no breakage. After getting its process and equipment calibrated, SwRI was now ready to try the tests with the space-flown RCC panels.

First, a foam block was fired at panel 6 from Discovery. The impact created a crack nearly six inches long in a rib supporting the leading edge, and it moved the panel enough to create a small gap in the T-seal between panels 6 and 7. This test proved that foam could damage the RCC. However, the damage incurred in this test would not have been severe enough to create the burn-through seen on Columbia. NASA estimated a hole of at least ten inches in diameter would have been needed for the wing to ingest a plasma stream large enough to create the damage shown in Columbia’s debris.

The next test target was panel 8, which had flown twenty-six times on Atlantis. Evidence from the reconstructed debris and the OEX recorder indicated that panel 8 was the probable site of the impact on Columbia’s wing.

At the test on Monday, July 7, 2003 the impact from the foam block blew a hole through the panel about sixteen inches by sixteen inches across, created several other cracks, and caused the T-seal to fail between panels 8 and 9. This was entirely consistent with the type of damage that caused Columbia’s demise.

Witnesses were incredulous, but the evidence was incontrovertible. NASA now had the smoking gun matching the fatal wound on Columbia. The test silenced lingering doubts that a foam strike alone was sufficient to damage the wing and doom the ship.

This text in this section is excerpted from the book “Bringing Columbia Home,” (c) 2017 by Mike Leinbach and Jonathan H. Ward. Video material is from NASA.

Tropical Storm Ernesto and the Half Rollback

Every now and then, a little creativity goes a long way…….

As noted in my previous post, we were charged with protecting the Kennedy Space Center workforce and the hardware. But of course, we were in the business to launch the Shuttle, not stay on the ground indefinitely while maximizing the safety statistics. The basic tenet for all of us was “Get work done, safely.” Apply that to all aspects of Shuttle processing and launch. Meeting the manifest was important. Launching was important. Doing it safely was paramount.

Decisions that could affect the manifest required me to consult with the Shuttle Program managers at Johnson Space Center (JSC)—and for good reason. The “Program” was “theirs”, not “mine”, or KSC’s. So for major decisions like rolling back for storms two people needed to agree: the Launch Director (me, at KSC) and the Operations Manager (the JSC manager stationed at KSC). We conferred and jointly made those major manifest-impacting decisions.

Flashback to late August, 2006. Atlantis was on the pad preparing for STS-115’s assembly mission to the ISS. Atlantis was originally scheduled to launch on August 27. Our ground team made an unprecedented replacement of some parts on the shuttle with a week to go until launch, and we maintained the schedule. Then on August 25, one of the most powerful lightning bolts ever recorded at Kennedy Space Center hit the lightning mast at the top of the launch pad’s Fixed Service Structure. We needed at least 24 hours to assess the damage from that strike, moving the launch date to August 29.

That was all trouble enough. But meanwhile, a minor tropical weather disturbance had been forming in the Caribbean. Unimpressive—but like all such systems, we would monitor it in case the unexpected happened and it became a threat to us.

True to form, after days of watching the storm, now named Ernesto, its track and forward speed appeared likely to affect Florida’s Space Coast while Atlantis was still preparing for launch.

Decisions were coming, no doubt. We began the initial work to roll the shuttle back to the Vehicle Assembly Building as a precaution. This work could easily be reversed and still hold the launch date if the storm took an unexpected turn away from us. Discussions with the 45th Space Wing meteorologists were now being held every six hours to coincide with the official forecasts from the National Hurricane Center.

As Ernesto crossed western Cuba and headed into the Florida Straits, it grew to hurricane strength. The frequency of our calls went up to the rare every three hours, and then almost continuously. Ernesto was on a track to enter extreme south Florida and head up the eastern side of the peninsula, essentially right at us.

Meanwhile, Atlantis had a launch date that was sandwiched in between several other arriving and departing vehicles at the International Space Station, other Eastern Test Range operations, and other constraints that were beyond our control. If we didn’t launch before about the 12th of September (as I recall), we would have to stand down for another two weeks or so. Schedule awareness (not schedule pressure) was real.

The decision was coming. Stay at the pad and risk exceeding our wind limits and possible Shuttle damage? Or roll back to the safety of the VAB and miss the near term launch opportunity?

After numerous tense calls with the Launch Weather Officer, LeRoy Cain (the JSC Ops Manager) and I made the decision to play it safe and roll back. It was the morning of the day before the storm’s predicted arrival, approximately 40-44 hours hence. Rolling early enough to beat the winds was the game we needed to play.

But what if the storm changed course and became less of a threat? That became a real possibility after the wheels were already in motion.

As the ground operations team was rolling Atlantis off the pad for its eight-hour trip back to the VAB, the question came to me: Could we reverse the roll and return to the pad IF the storm really did weaken and veer off course, permitting us to stay at the pad?

The Crawler-Transporter (CT), built for Apollo, went in only one direction: forward. Forward toward the pad, and forward toward the VAB. What? The CT had two control stations—one on the east face, one on the west face. It was from either of these “cockpits” that the crew drove the vehicle. There was no way to turn that mammoth vehicle around on the crawlerway. To go the other way, you’d just stop, get out of the western control cab en route to the VAB, get into the eastern cab, and then start driving again, this time toward the pad.

I asked the Support Test Manager if his guys could do this. He went pale. Never before even contemplated, no procedures allowing it, the time required, etc., etc. all indicated a negative response was likely. But Bobby Briggs, being the best STM at KSC, said he’d “look into it.” His eventual answer was that if we decided before the CT was halfway to the VAB, his guys could do it.

Perfect answer.

Armed with that, I went to LeRoy Cain to see what he thought of the idea. He liked it immediately. If the storm veered away in the next four hours or so, we could stop and return to the pad.

For the sake of brevity, here’s the punchline. We did stop the roll and went back to the pad following the “final” call with the LWO, Kathy Winters. The storm would start to weaken coming up on its overland track, AND the track had it going a bit farther to our east. Atlantis would be on the best side of the storm.

As all of us watched the storm progress up the state from the safety of our homes. The favorable track was verified. It passed to the east of the pad by approximately 40 miles, as I recall. Winds remained within limits and no damage resulted.

We launched successfully Atlantis on September 9, 2006. Astronaut Brent Jett commanded the mission. He had been an integral part of the crew recovery effort after the Columbia accident.

As I look back on this achievement, I can’t help but think about this being just one example of team creativity and their can-do, will-do approach to all operational challenges. I can’t put into words how proud of them I was, and am to this day.

This ‘partial rollback’ was needed to do two things – protect the vehicle, and, because of the way things turned out, preserve a launch opportunity. Get work done, safely.

Damn, it was fun!