Telling Columbia’s Story in “Real Time”

Time is a fascinating phenomenon. Setting aside discussions of special relativity, it’s pretty safe to say that objectively, time flows at the same rate every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year.

Subjectively, though, we perceive time’s passage as highly variable. It can zip past or drag on endlessly. Ask a ninth-grade student sitting in a boring class at 2:10 in the afternoon how long he feels it will be until school lets out, and he’ll say “forever.”

For us more senior folks, it’s a different story. I saw a post on Facebook the other day that said, “I was taking a surprise spelling test in tenth grade. I closed my eyes for a moment, and now I’m an old person.”

One of the challenges faced by an author of narrative non-fiction is how to capture the flow of time as perceived by the participants in the story, while contrasting that with what was actually going on in real time.

By the afternoon of the day of the Columbia accident, FEMA, the FBI, NASA, and the Texas Forest Service set up a command center in the Lufkin, Texas civic center. Mark Stanford led the TFS contingent. He found the windowless environment to be like the inside of a casino, with no cues as to what time it was. The frenetic, non-stop pace of responding to the emergency caused him to completely lose track of time. “I told someone I hadn’t slept in almost 72 hours,” he told me in an interview, “but then I learned that it was less than 24 hours since the accident.”

How do you write about less frantic periods? Stephen King insists that writers “leave out the boring parts.” Well, sometimes things just plain are boring. Days drag on while you wait for something to happen. Likewise, days melt into each other while you repeat the same process over and over, chipping away at the block of stone until the statue gradually appears. The writer must honor the work being done, somehow conveying the sense of tedium experienced by the participants, without also boring the reader!

Looking back over the first draft of the manuscript for Bringing Columbia Home, I see that we spent 20% of the words in the book describing the events in the 15 hours following the accident. The next two days take 10% of the book. The next two weeks take 15%. And the next two months account for 20% of the word count. That will give you some concept for the pace of activity in the recovery and reconstruction of Columbia.

And it’s interesting to note that the first day’s activities we describe are several hundred people reacting quickly to the crisis. But by the middle of the spring, it’s tens of thousands of people executing very methodical processes.

Going into the new year, Mike and I are going to use each week’s blog posts to highlight some of the events that were going on during the same time period in 2003. This weekly account over the period of a year will take us up to the release of Bringing Columbia Home and the 15th anniversary of the Columbia accident.

If you were a participant in the recovery and reconstruction—or even a bystander—we welcome you to share your recollections via comments on the blog pages.

We hope you will enjoy seeing this story unfold in real time.

We will also keep you informed on the progress of the book‘s publication, release date, book signings, etc.

Wishing you a very happy and prosperous New Year –

Jonathan and Mike

columbia_sts-109_preparing_for_launch
Columbia on the launch pad prior to the March 2002 STS-109 mission (NASA photo)

Launch fever

In an earlier posting, I talked about ‘schedule pressure’ and how it should have more correctly been referred to as ‘schedule awareness’. Awareness of the schedule contributed to good, productive decision-making. Pressure-based decisions could be shortsighted or worse, destructive.

What about decisions on launch day itself? Hundreds of subordinate schedules and decisions are about to pay off. Pressure? Awareness? Something else?

There’s a phenomenon in the launch business called “Launch Fever.” It, too, is very real. It is never productive and can be destructive. It’s the #1 thing on a Launch Director’s list to recognize and deal with. What is it? Why is it a big deal? What does a LD do about it?

Put yourself in the Shuttle Firing Room on launch day. A tremendous amount of work by thousands of people across the country is about to pay off. The vehicle is full of fuel. The astronauts are all strapped in, their hard work about to pay off big time. TV cameras are rolling. VIPs fill viewing areas, and tens of thousands of tourists line the causeways around the Cape area. Crew families await their loved ones’ achievement. Blue jeans have been replaced by suits and dresses on launch team members. Teams at other NASA and ISS centers are listening. KSC is in full launch mode with security tight on the ground, sea, and in the air. The final schedule achievement is about to be realized. We are about to launch the Space Shuttle. Everyone wants to launch. Our business is to launch. That’s Launch Awareness.

Enter a technical problem, weather issue, fouled Range, or any one of a thousand reasons to question whether we should launch or not. There’s a definite feeling, a palpable mood that sweeps over the collective team. For a while, good decision-making becomes secondary to the desire to launch.

Imagine that: Good decision-making becomes secondary to the desire to launch. Real? It absolutely can be. That’s Launch Fever.

What to do about it? After recognizing that it’s happening, which sometimes can be tricky in the first place, the #1 job of the Launch Director kicks in: Keep that Shuttle on the ground. As the last person to say “GO” it’s incumbent on the LD to have absolutely no reservations to launch. Zero. So even in the face of everyone else wanting to launch by saying GO, my job was to NOT launch the Shuttle unless and until I was ready.

Pressure? Only if you allowed it. Awareness of it was mandatory.

I was asked once what would have happened if on launch day I said NOGO in the face of everyone else being GO. Part of my training, and the training I gave each of my assistant LDs, goes like this. “That’s easy to answer. On that day we would not have launched. The astronauts and the vehicle would be on the ground and and they would be safe. NASA might have a new Launch Director the next day, but on that day we would have been safe.”

I never had to do put that training to use, as good decision-making always prevailed.

exp-nr-endeavor-launch-delayed-cnn-640x360
The final launch of shuttle Endeavour, STS-134, is scrubbed on April 29, 2011 due to problems with heaters on the vehicle’s auxiliary power units. President Obama and his family were on hand but unable to see the launch because of the scrub. (CNN photo)

Schedule pressure

I was asked in a press conference once if ‘schedule pressure’ had affected my decision for a launch. I wanted to throw the reporter out of the room, but I liked my job. Schedule pressure affecting a decision? Instead of a tirade, it was clear the reporter needed a little refresher in the basics of Project Management 101. Here it is:

Work scope. Budget. Schedule. Magic, huh?

Numerous times in the Shuttle program we were accused of letting the schedule affect some decision made. News flash—of course it did! What the reporter was really asking was is if the schedule made me make an unsafe decision. If he had actually asked me that way, then I would have thrown him out.

My job, and indeed the jobs of ALL the great people working so hard to put our astronauts into orbit, was to “get it done, safely.” No exceptions, no excuses for anything less. I found that the suggestion that it was otherwise to be appalling and personally offensive. But we heard it from time to time, and not just from the press. Indeed, to their defense, they had to ask it. Doesn’t make it any more friendly, but it was their job to push for answers. I much preferred the phrase ‘schedule awareness’, and that was how I answered the question. Schedules were just as real as money and scope. But none of the three trumped safety.

Of course we got the “how much did it cost?” question, and much more frequently than the safety question, fortunately. I always liked the cost question because that never drove my decisions, much to the dismay of our program office. My own view was that we had enough money to get the work done to the agreed upon schedule, and a little more. After all, the vast majority of our costs at KSC were labor, so we met the schedule based on the size of the workforce driven by allotted budget. Magic again. More money would have permitted more people working more shifts no doubt, but absent that, we got by with what we had.

Work scope was driven by essentially three factors. There were the normal systems tests, checkouts, maintenance, etc., that were required just to maintain a healthy, functioning program. There was scope, driven by failures and therefore some needed repair or replacement. And then there were system upgrades over the life of the program to modernize and improve safety margins. These could range from relatively minor enhancements, such as upgrades to the slidewire emergency egress system, to major flight hardware improvements, such as upgrades to the Space Shuttle Main Engines aimed at reducing the chances of a shutdown during ascent.

It was during these debates when scope growth was weighed against cost and schedule. And—virtually every upgrade decision made was based on an improvement to some safety margin, or it wouldn’t have made it to the table for discussion in the first place. Some ‘operability’ upgrades were accepted, but I would argue that these had their roots in improving safety by allowing better and/or easier user-to-system interaction.

Project Management 101. Simple. But in manned spaceflight, Safety was the overarching requirement—inescapable and thoroughly embraced. It wasn’t ‘the fourth factor’—it was the paramount factor, not often taught in the typical PM 101 course.

sts133-s-065
Mike Leinbach gives the Go for launch of Discovery  on mission STS-133, February 24, 2011 (NASA photo STS133-S-065)

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.

jonathan-with-marie-nelson
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!

 

sts-107-kid-pic
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.

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

Schirra and Lovell tour the hangar

 

schirra-lovell-reconstruction-hangar
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“.)

beach-house
The Beach House (NASA photo)