STS-107 and the ISS

In the early 2000’s the Space Shuttle program was deeply into the construction of the International Space Station, spurred on by America’s commitments to its sixteen partner agencies and countries. All components for the ISS, less those from Russia, were designed to be launched and serviced by the Shuttle. No other launch vehicle had its capacity or its capability. The ISS and Shuttle were tied at the hip, mutually dependent, fulfilling one of the early goals of the Shuttle program itself.

And, buoyed by the string of extremely successful missions following the Challenger accident in 1986 NASA was planning to extend the Shuttle program through 2020.

We at KSC were doing our advance planning to do major overhauls and upgrades of the four Shuttles. These Orbiter Modification and Development Periods (OMDP) were as important parts of the launch manifests as the missions themselves. Originally performed at the shuttle’s manufacturing site in Palmdale CA, they were now all to be done at KSC to save money and time.

Good decision, to be sure, but it had one unattractive impact on us. We had three Orbiter Processing Facilities (the hangars) but four Orbiters to deal with. That meant one Orbiter had to be at one of three other locations at any given time – in space, at the launch pad, or in the Vehicle Assembly Building. No way around it. (Had one landed at the Edwards AFB in CA it still would have been brought back to KSC after approximately a week.)

So how did this affect STS-107 and Columbia? With the emphasis on the ISS assembly missions, Columbia’s pure science mission was usually the one to be delayed when the higher priority ones needed something, anything. This included an OPF. Columbia was moved around KSC fairly often, always causing its scheduled launch date to be postponed.

STS-107’s launch date slipped thirteen times between when the mission was originally announced in 1997 and when it finally flew in January 2003. Flowliner cracks, wiring problems, and even unexpected problems with the Hubble Space Telescope de-prioritized STS-107’s science research flight and caused mission delays.

In response to Congress’ concern about delays and cost growth on the ISS, NASA committed to getting the Unity module (Node 2) to the ISS by the end of February 2004. That would essentially complete the installation of the US components that were on the critical path to bringing the Station up to its scientific potential.

It’s important to note that since Columbia was the heaviest Orbiter, it couldn’t launch to the ISS inclination without significant decrease in payload weight and giving her a new airlock. And NASA initially did not intend to fly her to the Station. But as of 2002, the delays caused by the issues mentioned above meant that Columbia needed to be pressed into service for ISS assembly if the February 2004 date was to be met.

Immediately following STS-107, Columbia was scheduled to go into an OMDP that would have seen modifications to lose weight to fly a single ISS assembly mission. And ironically, part of her weight loss would have included stripping out much of the MADS/OEX system—the “black box” that was so important in helping to pinpoint the accident cause in 107.

The interesting thing about launch slips or priority-induced effects on processing plans is that the KSC workers became used to them and it caused little more than temporary disappointment. It was simply part of the business.

Rick Husband and his crew had the same response. He and I talked about it once. Again, it was simply part of the business of space flight.

Eventually NASA settled on an achievable launch date for the 107 mission and we met it. Its outcome had nothing to do with the delays. Not a thing.

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Columbia under a tent in the VAB, awaiting space in an OPF (NASA Photo KSC-02PD-1196)

Perpetual Practice, Perfect Performance

I’m not a huge baseball fan, but I did tune in to the end of Game 7 of the World Series the other night. I couldn’t help but be fascinated by watching how the players, as individuals and as a team, responded to the mounting pressure as the game progressed into the final innings.

Everything was on the line. It was here and now. The endless months of training, a whole season of games—it all came down to those last few minutes of play, with the whole world watching.

How do you put the pressure out of your mind and just do your job?

There are of course all sorts of analogies about sports and “real life.” If you haven’t read Tim Gallwey’s seminal book, The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance, you really should! I’m greatly oversimplifying here, but Gallwey says that every match has two aspects: the Outer Game—the one played against your opponent—and the Inner Game, the one you play against yourself in your mind.

The Inner Game is nicely summed up in the Astronaut’s Prayer: Dear God, please don’t let me screw up! 

It’s tremendously expensive to fly a space mission. If something doesn’t go right, you may never get another shot at it. Everything you’re going to do in orbit has to be ingrained in your brain and your muscle memory. Your crew, the scientists on the ground, your country—they’re all depending on you to do your job. You simply can’t screw up due to a mental lapse or being unprepared.

Astronauts typically spend two solid years training for a mission. They endlessly rehearse every aspect of every moment of a flight. The commander and pilot run hundreds of landings on simulators and in the Gulfstream Shuttle Training Aircraft. Spacewalkers practice with their tools and mockups of the equipment they’ll be working with. They run at least seven full simulations of every spacewalk in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab’s giant swimming pool near Houston. The mission specialists needs to understand how everything on their vehicle works and how all the experiments operate. They simulate the different ways something can go wrong, so that when things go right, it’ll be a cakewalk.

Several times over the course of the coming months, we’ll look at some of the training that helps astronauts and ground crews prepare for missions. We’ll focus on some of the training for STS-107 in particular.

We’ll get a glimpse at how astronauts make it look easy. (Hint: It’s because they’ve performed incredibly complex tasks so many times that they can almost do them in their sleep. It also helps that they’re incredibly smart and competent people!)

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The STS-107 crew practices equipment maintenance at SPACEHAB in 2000. (NASA photo KSC-00PP-1838)

(Good) Scope Creep

Anyone who has worked on a project knows the dangers of scope creep—those seemingly inevitable changes or “features” that sneak in along the way, causing a project to balloon far beyond what you originally signed on to do. In the world of project management, with deadlines, budgets, and limited resources, scope creep can ruin your life, bankrupt your company, and cause your project to fail.

Writing a book can also take you far afield from your original intent. Scope creep after you’ve signed on with a publisher means precious time wasted on endless rabbit holes of interesting stuff that ultimately has little to do with what you committed to deliver. Then you face weeks of sleepless nights trying to cram your 200,000 words of brilliant material into a 100,000 word book.

For Bringing Columbia Home, our original intent was to tell a success story about the men and women of Kennedy Space Center who had cared for Columbia before and after missions, but who had to fight shock and grief to spend much of 2003 picking up and re-assembling Columbia‘s broken debris.

It was a dramatic, powerful story, and it would have made an interesting book. But every person we interviewed said the same thing: You can’t tell this story without talking about the people of east Texas and what they did to support us.

Mike and I debated whether this avenue was going to open the book up too wide—to dilute the message somehow. It seemed an important topic to pursue, though.

I contacted the board of the Patricia Huffman Smith Museum Remembering Columbia in the small town of Hemphill, Texas, and arranged to visit and interview some of the townspeople. I was unprepared for the outpouring of hospitality I received from people who had no agenda other than to modestly tell their individual parts of the story and see that the good works of their neighbors were remembered.

Working as I do with oral history, it’s always fascinating to come across people who were at the same event recounted by another person you’ve already talked to. Here, I interviewed dozens of townspeople who had so lovingly embraced members of the NASA family in their time of deepest need—nice folks who walked the thorny woods in the sleet, provided meals, opened their homes for NASA workers to stay in, did their laundry, prayed with them on the sidewalks, and provided daily encouragement to NASA to get the Shuttle flying again.

The bond between the people of the NASA community who came to search for their fallen comrades and the citizens Sabine County, Texas is unbreakable. Their histories are forever intertwined and inseparable. You can’t tell the story of Columbia‘s recovery without celebrating the remarkable work of the citizens of east Texas.

You’ll read a lot about them in Bringing Columbia Home.

Mike and I made the right call. This time, scope creep was a good thing.

Seeing the bigger picture

I’ve been asked, “What have you learned since starting the book?” The answer is I had just one small piece in the enormous overall effort, though it seemed and felt larger at the time. This is probably because of the total commitment at the time that consumed us all. Maybe others feel the same?

But that answer is weak. True, but weak. The truth is I have learned a tremendous amount about the recovery of the debris, and some on its reconstruction. This is both on the technical/physical side of those efforts, but what’s more, on the personal side – the people that did it.

Filling in tons of details in my understanding of the searching for the debris was perhaps the largest single learning I’ve had. I was only at Barksdale AFB for twelve days before returning to KSC for the reconstruction effort, so I never got ‘down and in’ in the recovery like I did for the reconstruction. The twelve days was spent helping Dave Whittle and the Mishap Investigation Team get set up, establishing the early plans and policies, arranging for KSC support for it, etc.

We got a lot done in those twelve days—don’t get me wrong. But I only once had a chance to get to a debris site once, and only for a couple hours. I never experienced what so many people did in the raw fields of Texas. I regret I didn’t truly experience it. But I was called upon to lead the reconstruction effort, so I returned home.

Hearing what people actually went through in the recovery of the crew and debris made me wish I had helped them. Their stories will be in the book. It’s important we all know what they experienced and the sacrifices they made. I have never been so proud of people I know (and never knew) in my life. That’s the #1 take-away for me from this whole endeavor. By far.

And it’s not only the people that walked the lines—it’s the great citizens of Texas that helped them get through the ordeal. Their support was every bit as important as the searchers themselves. Their contributions were vital, impromptu at first, and entirely voluntary.

Amazing.

25,000 Heroes

Mike Leinbach and I are excited to be kicking off this new project in conjunction with our forthcoming book, Bringing Columbia Home.

Our research for the book over the past year and a half has involved talking to more than 100 participants in the recovery and reconstruction of Columbia. We have interviewed people from all walks of life – from the former Administrator of NASA (Sean O’Keefe), to more than a dozen astronauts, to employees of the FBI, FEMA, US and Texas Forest Services, to people like Marie “Little Granny” Nelson, a volunteer who prepared and served food for the search crews in Hemphill, Texas in February 2003.

We’re amazed at how the loss and recovery of Columbia deeply touched and changed the lives of every one of the 25,000 people involved in the effort. It was an event of critical national importance. The success of the effort required extraordinary personal compassion, commitment, and courage.

The loss of Columbia and her crew was an international tragedy. Equally tragic is that so many people do not know or remember the amazing work done by everyday Americans to recover Columbia. Their courage and sacrifices enabled NASA to get the space shuttle fleet flying again and continue its mission.

The story of Columbia‘s recovery and reconstruction is simply too big to fit into one book. That’s why we started this blog. We hope to shine a light on the incredible events of the first half of 2003, when Americans of all backgrounds united to perform the largest land search and recovery operation in our history.

Please let us know if you or one of your friends or family took part in the recovery and reconstruction. We look forward to hearing from you!

Welcome

There are very few subjects that would get me to write a book or participate in a blog, but finally telling the untold piece of the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy has done it. Jonathan Ward and I are honored to finally bring it to you and the American people, who deserve to know how well the recovery and reconstruction of Columbia‘s debris went. And, more importantly, it relates how thousands of Americans from completely diverse walks of life came together for the single purpose of assisting NASA and their country in an endeavor unlike any other in history.

The loss of Columbia’s seven astronaut crew members and the Orbiter itself has been documented in several books of varying styles, technical acumen, and/or retrospective insight, but the recovery of her debris and subsequent reconstruction for engineering forensic study has never been adequately documented. ‘Bringing Columbia Home’ will do it in detail, with the story told by those that did it. It is an integral part of the national tragedy and, interestingly, a real success story.

The loss was deeply moving for those of us who were close to the astronauts and the Space Shuttle program. It also became an indelible memory for over 25,000 Americans who answered the call for help. The book will be dedicated to them. We hope it will well honor the American spirit of cooperation and compassion they brought to the effort. I saw it. I experienced it. I was part of it. It was real.

Jonathan and I welcome your comments and recollections as we write the book. We have tried very hard to interview folks from all the many different organizations and “ordinary citizens” who contributed their time and hearts recovering over 84,000 pieces of Columbia from the raw fields of east Texas and those that were asked to figure out what happened to the mighty spaceship based solely on the recovered debris.

The success of both groups contributed directly to NASA’s ability to get the Shuttle flying again, and safer. And that was glorious to experience.

So here we go. And to the 25,000, we hope the eventual book (publication estimate December, 2017) will be one you will be proud of and can share with your families, friends, and especially your children, relating your own contribution in a way only you can. For me, I am profoundly proud to have been part of your team.