Interviews and truth

Bringing Columbia Home is my third book. Other than the obvious similarity with my other two books, in that it deals with the American space program, it shares another key element: it relies heavily on oral history and interviews.

I can’t adequately describe what a thrill it is to interview people who were on the scene during important times and events in history. Some people had “bigger” roles than others, consistent with their job titles or the scope of their responsibilities. However, events like the Columbia tragedy profoundly shaped people’s lives, no matter what their role or scope. Everyone who was involved has their truth about how the event and their reactions to it were turning points in their lives.

One question I like to ask in my interviews is: What did you learn about yourself in going through this experience? That never fails to make people reflect on the importance of what they did when they were put to the test. Many people break into tears when it suddenly strikes them how deeply they were affected by all that they went through in a critical period. I feel profoundly honored to be present with people as they recall such moments.

My last corporate job was as a consultant in organizational effectiveness and change. In big companies, it’s physically impossible to talk to everyone, but you also want to get as many perspectives as you can. My usual approach was to interview a “diagonal slice” of people in an organization—talk to a representative sample of people from all levels and all job functions within the organization I was studying.

In a situation like the Columbia accident, where there were 25,000 people directly involved in the search for the shuttle’s debris, and hundreds of people in the reconstruction hangar at KSC—not to mention the hundreds of thousands of people who were residents of the area where Columbia‘s debris came to Earth—I had to use a somewhat similar approach.

I did a quick tally of the interviewees for our book the other day, and here are some examples of the kinds of people I talked to:

  • Senior NASA officials (Administrator, senior staff, Center directors, etc.)
  • Senior officials from FBI, FEMA, US Forest Service, Texas Forest Service
  • 14 former astronauts
  • Managers, engineers, and technicians from NASA, Boeing, United Space Alliance, Spacehab, and other organizations
  • Consultant to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board
  • Forestry workers with the US Forest Service and Texas Forest Service
  • A County Judge, sheriffs, law enforcement officials, a special agent for the FBI, a city manager, and other local officials
  • Residents of Sabine County, Texas who volunteered as searchers or volunteered to help the recovery operations in other ways
  • A school principal and teacher
  • A Baptist minister and two funeral directors
  • Hotshot firefighters contracted by the US Forest Service
  • NASA and contractor engineers and technicians who deployed officially (and also unofficially) to assist in the search and recovery operations

All told, I’ve talked to about 100 participants, and I’m still talking to more. We have over 600,000 words of interview transcripts from conversations over the past 20 months. Obviously, we’ll soon reach the point where there isn’t time to include information for additional interviews, or we’ll never finish the book.

If you were involved in the Columbia search, recovery, or reconstruction, I strongly urge you to write down your memories! Mike and I would of course love to hear about your experiences. Feel free to contact us at the links on this site. We can’t guarantee that we will be able to use your stories in the book. However, we do vow to share the collective experiences either through this blog or some other means of preserving Columbia‘s history.

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Jonathan with Mrs. Marie “Little Granny” Nelson, who fed and supported the searchers in Hemphill, Texas during the Columbia recovery. (Photo taken October 21, 2015 at the Patricia Huffman Smith “Remembering Columbia” Museum in Hemphill.)

Astronaut families on launch day

Put yourself in the role of an immediate family member of an astronaut on Launch Day. What do you do? What do you feel? Where are you? Will your wife, husband, or parent be OK?

Imagine the multitude of thoughts and emotions as the most important person in your life is about to put her or his life on the line, literally. Do you think about Challenger? Columbia? Apollo 1? Of course you do, but you don’t allow yourself to be consumed by them either.

If you’re the parent of a youngster, what do you do to assure your child that mom or dad will be fine? And how do you spend the final several hours of countdown waiting for liftoff?

I’ve spoken to lots of astronauts over the years and it comes down to “duty supersedes danger.” Easy to say as adults, not so much for kids.

So what did we do to help the families and their children on launch day? Several things evolved over time as good to do and they became standard protocol—a tradition, if you will. First though, a brief understanding of the timeline for launch might help.

The astronauts usually arrived at KSC three days before launch, as did their families. Being quarantined for about seven days before a mission necessitated the crew and families staying at different locations. The astronauts stayed on base at the Crew Quarters in the Operations and Checkout Building, about eight miles from the launch pad. The families would stay in local motels. Their paths crossed only in phone calls or other electronic ways. The next two days would see the crew get into final training for the mission and the families preparing for a very momentous day.

Launch day for the crew started approximately seven hours before launch and after fueling of the External Tank had begun. Breakfast and suit-up followed. By about three hours before launch, they’d be strapped in the Shuttle awaiting liftoff, as final systems checks continued from the Firing Room.

The immediate family members—wives, husbands, and children—would arrive at the Launch Control Center about four hours before launch and take up residence in my office on the fourth floor, just above the control rooms. Each family would have their own personal veteran astronaut assigned to them to explain what was happening, answer questions, etc. Protected from the prying eyes of the press in this private setting allowed them to be alone with each other and their thoughts.

But how do you entertain the youngsters for the long three to four hours of waiting? The ‘Kid Pic’ was born in the earliest days of the Shuttle Program as a fun way to help each child pass the time and think positive thoughts about what his or her parent was about to do.

The Kid Pic was hand drawn in full color by the astronauts’ children on a 3’ by 5’ white board in an adjoining but separate office. It was a great way to allow their parents even more privacy and occupy their children. Each drawing was unique, inspired by their pride in their parent and limitless imaginations. After launch it was framed and protected behind plexiglass and hung in the hallways of the LCC.

As the number of Kid Pics grew with each mission conducted, we began displaying them in other operational areas of KSC. Artistic prowess wasn’t required, and none were judged for it!

 

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The STS-107 Kid Pic, drawn by the children of Columbia‘s crew (photo by Jonathan Ward)

As liftoff approached, the families with kids in-tow would be escorted to the roof of the LCC to experience launch from a truly great vantage point. Once their loved ones were safely in orbit, their day of overwhelming pride and unbelievable stress was essentially over. They would return to their motel rooms or head directly back to Houston to watch the crew perform on behalf of the country as the mission unfolded.

Launch was a success, but true celebrations would have to wait for their reunions as families again on landing day.

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Panoramic view of LC-39 from the LCC roof (Photo by Jonathan Ward)

Schirra and Lovell tour the hangar

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manned spaceflight traditions

Traditions play an extremely important role in almost all aspects of life. Think of your work, your personal doings, your religion. Think about how your parents raised you, and how you raise(d) your kids. Think of politics—well, OK, don’t! Traditions are everywhere, and deservedly so.

Traditions in the American manned spaceflight business run deep. From those that were born in the Mercury program—like the ceremonial “Farewell” words from the capsule communicator to the astronaut on board the rocket—to the post-launch beans and cornbread of the Shuttle program, they are ways to celebrate, connect to the past, and look to the future.

Continuity. Celebration. Reverence.

Of all the traditions, my personal favorite was the pre-launch ‘quiet time’ shared by a lucky few at KSC with the crew that was just about ready to fly into space. We did this during TCDT Week. The Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test was, on the surface, a dress rehearsal for launch. The astronauts and the launch team would conduct an exercise as close to launch conditions as possible to prepare for the real thing. After all, no rookie astronaut or console operator should experience launch ‘cold’, right?

The three days leading up to the simulated launch was time to train in emergency systems, get technical and operational briefings, and have the ‘quiet time’, also known as the TCDT crew/management dinner. Always conducted at the famed “Beach House” on the Atlantic coast, it was a chance for the astronauts to get to know the folks who prepared their spacecraft and payloads, and vice versa. Of critical importance, and an intended consequence, was the opportunity for them to get to know and personally thank a fraction of those people whose work could directly affect their lives.

With a group of about fifteen folks at the dinner, representing the thousands of KSC workers, the Orbiter Test Conductor went from being “OTC” to being “Roberta.” The Director of Payload Processing was now known as “Steve.” And the Launch Director became “Mike.”

Just a name change? NO WAY. We went from ‘Cape guys’ to trusted colleagues and friends very quickly.

The meal itself was a tradition: barbecue chicken, beef brisket, smoked sausage, baked beans, cole slaw, potato salad, tossed green salad, buttered and toasted Italian bread, a dish of sliced jalapenos and other condiments, and brownies for desert. The wonderful ladies at crew quarters would prepare the food, the crew would provide the “refreshments”.

Talk was sometimes about the mission but mostly about families, colleges, hobbies, and the like. The time passed quickly overlooking the ocean and mementos of previous missions. It was by any measure a time for fellowship, some reflection, and certainly wishes for success.

(It should be noted that the astronauts routinely went around the KSC processing facilities thanking as many of the technicians, engineers, and office workers as possible as they were going about their business. Seeing a Blue-Suiter was much more common than rare.)

Many other traditions surrounded Shuttle’s TCDT Week, Launch Week, and Landing Day, and I’ll get to them in time. Many can be traced back to the 1960s when similar groups had similar interactions before manned missions.

We owe a tremendous amount to those that truly blazed the trail and left us with enduring and deeply meaningful traditions. I’m certain many will survive the transition to the next manned programs. They should.

(Hear Mike tell the story of the STS-107 Columbia crew dinner in this “Untold Story from the Rocket Ranch“.)

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The Beach House (NASA photo)

White powder from outer space?

Over the course of the 100 days following the Columbia accident, NASA and the EPA responded to 12,000 calls from residents in Texas and Louisiana about space shuttle debris sightings.

Representatives from NASA and the EPA personally investigated every call. The EPA was responsible for checking the debris for hazards, rendering it safe, and then transporting it to one of the four collection centers along the debris path in Texas. The NASA representative made an initial determination whether or not the debris was likely from the space shuttle.

Many of the items found by local residents were either extremely hazardous (like pyrotechnic devices or pressure vessels with hypergolic propellants) or turned out to be crucial to the accident investigation. NASA was deeply indebted to the citizens who called in such findings.

However, some of the items were of more dubious origin.

Here’s a story about a Columbia debris sighting that won’t make it into our book, but I think it’s worth sharing. Pat Adkins, who was a KSC quality inspector, was deployed to Sabine County, Texas to aid with the recovery of Columbia debris. Here’s his story:

“We responded to a call about some unusual debris. A policeman was holding back a crowd and had placed crime scene tape all around this mound of white, crystalline-looking stuff. And it had one little blue dot in the middle of it. There was nothing else near it—no cylinders, no containers, no nothing.

“The woman who lived there was with him, and the policeman was kind of rolling his eyes. And so that kind of set the tone for us when we looked at him.

“I pulled her aside, and I questioned her. The woman said, ‘This was not here the night before.’ And I said, ‘There’s just nothing from the shuttle that this could possibly be. It didn’t come from the experiment packages.’ But she was insistent.

“I started looking around at all the other stuff that’s in the back area. It’s on the lip of the woods, in back of all of their places, and it’s like everybody’s junkyard back there.

“I said, ‘So tell me something: Do you have a water softener?’ She said, ‘I don’t, but my neighbor does.’ I said, ‘Well, you know, you use rock salt in water softeners.’ And she responded, ‘Yeah, I know you use salt. But this isn’t salt, ’cause it didn’t taste salty.’

“I chuckled a little bit. The poor EPA guy with me is starting to lose it. And even the cop was laughing. I said, ‘So let me get this straight: You think this came out of a spacecraft that has broken up in the upper atmosphere, and you saw it, and thought it was odd enough to call people about. But yet you tasted it?’

“And she got indignant and said, ‘Well, y’all think we’re a bunch of bumpkins anyway.’ Those were her words, I’ll never forget it. And I looked at the EPA guy, and I said, ‘I don’t remember ever saying that.’

“I said to the EPA guy, ‘Look, the only way that this lady is gonna have peace of mind is if we take this, so let’s get a bag.’ And so we dug it up out of her yard, and then smoothed her yard over.

“It was rock salt. The EPA guy had that bag of rock salt in the back of his truck for three weeks. He didn’t know what to do with it. I certainly didn’t want it in my collection area!”

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Actual shuttle debris near Etoile, Texas on February 1, 2003. (Courtesy of Jan Amen)

15 Years

Why the book? Why now?

The short answers are, the story needs to be told, and, someone with discipline and writing ability is helping.

Jonathan and I met at Norm Carlson’s memorial service on March 14, 2015. A month later, we decided to collaborate to tell the untold piece of Columbia’s final mission.

Many of you knew Norm. He was my mentor, hiring me into the NASA Test Director’s office after Challenger. He was also my very close friend, and friend to so many at KSC and beyond. He earned all the accolades received at the services. From being the Launch Vehicle Test Conductor for the Apollo missions, his launch team leadership in the early days of Shuttle, to his unabashed pride in NASA and love for throwing parties, Norm was special. A commemorative coin given out at the services said it best, “Norm Carlson a True KSC Legend.” He would have loved the tribute. And Bobbie, his wife “forever”, would have, too. (A room in the Launch Control Center is named for Bobbie, a tribute to a truly fine lady.)

Jonathan and I kicked around the book idea and both concluded it NEEDED to be told, and the story needed to be written before more years robbed us of memories, or worse. The passage of time made research for Jonathan’s two KSC-based Apollo books particularly difficult. Fortunately, all that research was done with Norm’s awesome help. Unfortunately, Norm missed the books’ actual releases.

With Jonathan’s help, the story of Columbia and her final crew’s recovery, reconstruction, and use for the betterment of spacecraft design will be told.

I only wish Norm could read it.

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Mike and Jonathan, five minutes after we decided to write the book together.

Columbia’s Nose Landing Gear

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Columbia‘s NLG (Boeing photo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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