Mike and I have been working on our book for nearly two years now. The manuscript goes to our editor at Skyhorse Publishing on March 15. Everything is on track for the book to be released around Christmas this year.
We sent a courtesy copy of the manuscript recently to Sean O’Keefe, who was NASA Administrator at the time of the Columbia accident. Sean was an early and enthusiastic supporter of our project when we kicked it off, and he is very pleased with the results:
Mike and Jonathan have done a brilliant job capturing the depth of emotion and human engagement of what has been covered by others only as a technical investigative treatment. In doing so, they have made the story very personal for the thousands of people who invested themselves in this critical chapter of space exploration history. This is a valuable contribution about a defining moment that demonstrates NASA’s resolve and the selfless generosity of the American spirit.
All space flight providers want to control costs. From the traditional government and commercial enterprises to the new entrants, all want to keep costs as low as reasonably possible. Gone a long time ago—and forever—are the days of unlimited resources to get the job done. Bottom lines matter, and matter a lot.
It has long been argued that one way to keep costs reasonable is to reuse launch hardware. Even when adding the required refurbishment/reflight checks, repairs, component replacements, etc., to the equation it can be shown on paper to save money in the long run. The Shuttle was sold to Congress in part on this philosophy. And being the first reusable spacecraft they could know no different.
Nor could NASA fully know the long-term implications of reusability.
An additional fact is this: Adding astronauts to the equation requires changing ‘reasonably’ to safely. No argument there, right? But what are the implications of this change? Simply put, based on Shuttle experience, it requires lots more of the checks, repairs, component replacements, etc., in an attempt to make the re-flight as technically close to the first as possible. The newer the hardware, the less risk of failure. No argument there either.
These costs are easy to understand and accept. What about the posting’s title? Hidden? I have alluded to it in earlier postings and it’s not just a financial issue. It can cost a lot more than money.
Here it is:
With the desire to refly hardware that has (theoretically) performed well before, a tendency to rely on past performance when approving current flight rationale is given more weight than it should.
That tendency can either be seen overtly, or it can be latent. If obvious, it can be dealt with through open discussion and full debate of the issue at hand. If hidden, it can fester, grow, become a ‘new normal’—or worse, lead to disaster.
Examples in the Shuttle program are numerous. From those we recognized and dealt with—wire chafing, flow liner cracks, hydrogen leaks—to those that dealt us the most severe of consequences—foam shedding, O-ring scorching—we were challenged by the need to re-fly hardware, all with the overarching tenet of doing so safely.
Tragically, we didn’t always balance that correctly.
I sincerely hope today’s and tomorrow’s astronaut launch providers succeed 100% of the time. Recognizing when a ‘new normal’ is kicking in is part of the success criteria.
Within two weeks of the Columbia accident, an intense search effort by NASA, the US Forest Service, the Texas Forest Service, the FBI, the National Guard, the Texas Department of Public Safety, local law enforcement officers, and hundreds of volunteers located the remains of Columbia‘s crew in Sabine County, Texas.
Meanwhile, in the Persian Gulf, seven thousand miles away from the pine thickets of East Texas, the US was gearing up for the opening of another war front in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The National Guard was pulled within a few days of the last crew member being located.
The immediate urgency of the search operation was significantly reduced. NASA and the EPA had located and cleared many of the hazardous materials that had fallen to the ground from the shuttle—tanks with hypergolic propellants, pyrotechnic charges, and the like.
And yet, tens of thousands of pieces of debris still remained on the ground in a path more than 250 miles long and 10 miles wide, stretching from near Dallas to Ft. Polk, Louisiana. NASA still had no firm evidence about what had caused the accident; there were still many possible failure scenarios on the fault tree.
The spring “green up” would be coming within a month or two. Once that occurred, the underbrush would become impassable to ground search teams. And it was unreasonable to expect the small towns along the debris corridor to endure the disruption and hardship of supporting a large number of searchers for a prolonged time. Although there were many volunteers who would gladly have continued working in the search, the NASA and FEMA leaders in Lufkin resolved not to put civilians in harm’s way for what was now a debris salvage operation.
So how could such a huge expanse of land be cleared quickly?
Mark Stanford of the Texas Forest Service and Marc Rounsaville of the US Forest Service made a proposal to NASA and FEMA: Use US Forest Service Incident Management Teams (IMTs) supported by wild land fire crews to run the search. Stanford and Rounsaville had actually proposed this more than a week earlier, but idea hadn’t taken hold. Now, it seemed intriguing.
National IMTs come from all over the United States. They are trained to deal with many types of complex “all-hazard” incidents, ranging from wildfires to hurricanes to the response to the World Trade Center attacks. IMTs deploy as completely self-contained units, with their own logistical support, and can be on site within days. They would be supported by hundreds of fire crews, each composed of twenty able-bodied men and women who were already skilled in the techniques of grid searching. They would only need to be trained in what to look for.
Astronauts Dom Gorie and Jerry Ross, who were helping to manage the debris search for NASA, asked how many people could be brought in. Stanford said he could have 1,000 people on site within a matter of days. Gorie and Ross immediately asked, “How about a thousand more?” Stanford said it could be done. “How about another thousand?” It was possible, but might take a few extra days.
Gorie was impressed. He said, “It was miraculous. I had no idea that anything like this could be generated just for this effort.”
Calculations showed that search lines of people stretched five to ten feet apart were likely to find at least 75 percent of all objects six inches square or larger in the debris field. Ground searchers would cover every square foot of an area three miles on either side of the center line of the debris corridor. Air crews in government-contracted helicopters would search another two miles on each side of the ground search corridor. This would theoretically enable NASA to recover an amazing 95 percent of the debris on the ground.
And the operation could be completed by April 15.
NASA and FEMA gave the approval to get the operation underway by the last week of February, 2003. The Texas Forest Service would manage the overall effort. There would be two months of an all-out push to find and recover the rest of Columbia‘s debris.
Ultimately, nearly 22,000 men and women were involved in this ground search.
We will hear much more about this operation in the coming weeks.
Just a few days after the Columbia accident, NASA’s management discussed where and how to reconstruct the debris from the ship that was being found in Texas and Louisiana. Telemetry from Columbia cut off more than 30 seconds before the accident, and the ship’s Orbital Experiments (OEX) recorder—akin to an airplane’s black box—might not have made it to the ground. There was a chance that the debris could provide clues about the cause of the accident and how the shuttle broke up.
On February 3, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe and his deputy, Bill Readdy, announced that Kennedy Space Center would be the site for reconstructing Columbia. Steve Altemus from the launch team volunteered immediately to set up and lead the day-to-day operations. Mike Leinbach was named to head the overall reconstruction effort, as the “up and out manager” a few days later.
The Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) hangar at the southeast end of the Shuttle Landing Facility runway was a perfect location—convenient, secure, and big enough for the task. NASA quickly negotiated a lease for the hangar—which is owned by Space Florida, even though it’s on KSC grounds—and got to work setting it up.
The NTSB and Boeing Air Safety provided guidance in laying out a grid. NASA would “peel open” the orbiter so that its external surfaces were lying face-up on the hangar floor. The dimensions on the floor grid were 10% larger than real life, to give examiners room to walk around between the pieces of debris and examine them from all angles. NASA set up the outline of the orbiter as if the shuttle had been towed into the hangar nose-first.
Placing items relative to each other on the grid as they would have been on the orbiter enabled researchers to find patterns that might point to the cause of the accident, as opposed to damage that occurred after the vehicle broke up.
Even though EPA and NASA were decontaminating the debris as it was collected in the field, NASA needed to plan for the possibility that some pieces of debris might come back with toxic hypergolic propellant residue. A decontamination area was set up near the receiving area. NASA also eventually used a second hangar—adjacent to the Apollo/Saturn V Visitors Center—to store large components made of “friable” materials that could cause respiratory problems if their particles or fibers were inhaled. This included sections of the shuttle’s payload bay doors and composite-overwrapped pressure vessels.
NASA set up a walled-off room at one side of the hangar. Here, astronaut Pam Melroy and her team of engineers and technicians would be responsible for reconstructing Columbia‘s crew module in three dimensions.
Materials for internal systems (power, hydraulics, miscellaneous plumbing, etc.) and the Spacehab experiments were stored in bread racks on the sides of the hangar.
Everything would be photographed, barcoded, and logged into a database when it entered the hangar. GPS coordinates had been taken for every piece recovered in the field. As the reconstruction team positively identified various components, they could use this information to target searchers to areas where critical items might be found.
NASA set up the hangar, established the operating procedures, and staffed the reconstruction positions within 10 days.
The first two truckloads of material arrived from Barksdale Air Force Base on February 14, the same day Mike Leinbach returned to KSC from leading the Rapid Response Team at Barksdale. Trucks brought more debris every other day for the next several weeks, and would continue arriving regularly until the last shipment on May 6.
KSC security special agents escorted every shipment, accompanied by representatives of other NASA centers, who wished to participate in the honor of bringing Columbia home one final time.
The hangar operated with two shifts per day, six days a week, with about 150 personnel per shift, as people began the massive job of identifying and studying tens of thousands of pieces of Columbia‘s debris.
This is the first of many articles in the coming months about the reconstruction activities.
NASA and the country held memorial services for Columbia‘s crew beginning with a service at Johnson Space Center on February 4. The next day, a service was held at Washington DC’s National Cathedral. On February 7, NASA leaders gathered on the Shuttle Landing Facility runway at Kennedy Space Center. Columbia‘s first pilot, astronaut Robert Crippen, delivered a moving eulogy to Columbia and her crew.
NASA’s press release of February 5 stated that remains of all seven Columbia crew members had been returned to Dover Air Force Base. That was factually correct, but not complete information. What the release did not say was that two of the crew were still missing. Up to 1,600 Forest Service personnel, National Guard troops, employees of the Texas Department of Public Safety, and volunteers combed the woods of Sabine County over the weekend of February 8 and 9 in a desperate search for the crew. Cold rain, sleet, and miserable conditions plagued the searchers.
On February 10, one of the National Guard units located the remains of the sixth of Columbia‘s crew near Toledo Bend Reservoir. Remains of the seventh and final crew member were found the next day. The sense of elation and relief felt by the searchers can’t be adequately described. Local resident Mike Alexander, a volunteer searcher since the day after the accident, broke into tears when he heard the announcement. “I just started crying out there in the woods,” he said. “I couldn’t help it. I thought, ‘We got closure now.'”
Volunteers in Sabine County had provided almost all of the food and shelter for the searchers. It was impossible to determine precisely how much food had been donated or how many thousand meals had been served at Hemphill’s VFW hall. Best estimates were that this relatively small community and a handful of volunteers had prepared and served 30,000 to 50,000 meals in two weeks. The community had donated over $620,000 in services to the recovery—at no cost to the federal or state government.
“It’s just people helping people—that’s what this small town is about,” said Roger Gay, Hemphill VFW’s commander. “Everybody likes to help everybody else, and they don’t expect anything from it. It was an occurrence that happened, and we dealt with it the best way we knew how.”
NASA’s Dave King summed up, “The people of East Texas made you proud to be an American, because they sacrificed and gave everything they had to try to help us. It was unbelievable what they did for us.”
Elsewhere in the 250-mile-long corridor where Columbia‘s wreckage came to Earth, hundreds of United Space Alliance and NASA personnel from Kennedy Space Center, along with representatives of the EPA, were working with local authorities to investigate debris sightings, check the pieces for contamination with hypergolic propellants, and then bring the items back to collection centers. The debris being found ranged from pieces of the wing to items from the crew module.
On February 7, searchers near Palestine, Texas found a videotape cassette, one of many that had at least partially survived the accident. Astronaut Ron Garan collected the tapes and flew them on a T-38 to Washington, DC, where he inspected them at the NTSB’s headquarters. Most were blank or were data tapes. However, one caused him to freeze when he started playing it.
It was the cockpit video of Columbia‘s reentry.
“The hair stood up on the back of my neck,” Garan said, “because we didn’t know how long the video was going to last or what it was going to show.” To his relief, the tape ended several minutes before the first sign of trouble.
NASA publicly released the video on February 28. The tape showed Columbia’s crew happy, being professional, and enjoying the ride. They were passing the camera around, smiling at each other, and remarking on the sight of the glowing plasma surrounding the orbiter. They were obviously unaware that anything was wrong with their ship.
NASA’s contingency plans swung into action within minutes of the accident. An hour later, Administrator Sean O’Keefe named Dave King—deputy director at Marshall Spaceflight Center—to head the recovery of Columbia and her crew. At about the same time, FEMA told Scott Wells to head from Jonesboro, Arkansas to Lufkin, Texas, where the FBI was already starting to try to put its hands around the accident. Someone from the US Attorney’s Office in Lufkin secured the used of the town’s Civic Arena for use as a command center. King flew to Lufkin, which became the nexus of the federal response to the Columbia accident for the next three months.
Meanwhile, Dave Whittle from Johnson Space Center, who was designated to head NASA’s Mishap Investigation Team, looked for a secure site where he could coordinate the logistics for the remains of the crew and the debris from the ship. He identified Barksdale Air Force Base, near Shreveport, as a suitable site. Barksdale was home of the Air Force’s 2nd Bomb Wing. Its B-52s were preparing for the imminent invasion of Iraq.
The first 79 members of Kennedy’s Rapid Response Team, led by Mike Leinbach, deployed to Barksdale on the evening of February 1 and set up shop in “Nose Dock 6” to support Whittle in the debris recovery effort. Over the next several days, several hundred more people would deploy from Kennedy to Barksdale and then to the field.
If the number of teams seems confusing, this is a simplified list. NASA named fourteen official teams and working groups within the first few hours of the accident for its own internal purposes and to support the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB). This was in addition to representatives from EPA, FBI, NTSB, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the US Coast Guard—ultimately over 450 federal, state, and local agencies and organizations—that responded to the accident.
By the evening of February 1—still less than twelve hours after the accident—the Lufkin Civic Center was a maelstrom of activity. Hundreds of “Type-A” leaders from the various agencies staked out space, set up their command centers, and tried to figure out how to help. To the untrained eye, it appeared to be absolute chaos.
Mark Stanford from the Texas Forest Service was assigned by his manager to implement the Incident Command System at Lufkin. A veteran of many “all-risk” type of incidents, Stanford knew when he walked in the door at the Civic Center that it would take two to three days for order to emerge from the chaos. This was a normal part of the process. Rather than trying to assert his authority, he had learned a tactic for gaining the trust of the leaders: “Find someone who appears to be in charge. Ask him or her what three things are causing them the biggest headaches, then go fix those things. Then you’ll be a valued member of the team.”
One of the most amazing outcomes of the Columbia accident was the remarkable level of cooperation between agencies that developed over the next several days. There were no turf battles. The Incident Command System provided a framework with clear command and reporting structures that allowed each agency to contribute in the areas where it could be most effective.
But it would take several days for FEMA and NASA to begin to get a handle on what was going on.
On the morning of February 2, the NTSB told Dave Whittle’s team at Barksdale that they estimated that no more than 5 to 10 percent of the shuttle would have survived reentry. KSC’s Ed Mango looked at the map on the wall—already populated with hundreds of pushpins marking phoned-in debris sightings—and knew that things didn’t add up. Mango, along with astronauts Jerry Ross and Dom Gorie, drove to Lufkin to investigate first-hand. Gorie made some calls and secured the use of four Army National Guard helicopters to scout the debris field, the extent of which was still unknown.
Mango took one helicopter to Chireno, Texas, where someone had reported finding a tire in their field. How could a piece of rubber survive a hypersonic breakup and reentry? It seemed incredible. The landowner then told Mango that something else had landed in the adjacent farm. Mango found it.
It was a locker from Columbia‘s crew module—and most of its contents were still intact.
Meanwhile, Jerry Ross flew to Louisiana to check out an unusual sighting near Ft. Polk. People had heard loud sonic booms. A US Forest Service team drove around the area to check things out. They passed a water-filled puddle and then noticed: mud was splashed forty feet high on the surrounding trees.
This was not a puddle. It was an impact crater. Ross instantly recognized part of a shuttle engine powerhead poking above the water in the hole.
The national news media and volunteer searchers swelled the towns in East Texas. The population of Hemphill, Texas doubled almost overnight as people came to help with the search. By the end of the second day, searchers had found the remains of two more of Columbia‘s crew. The next day, two more crew members were located. Hopes ran high that the last two crew members would be found soon.
While the team at Kennedy Space Center wondered where Columbia was, the citizens of Deep East Texas wondered what terrible disaster was being visited upon them from the sky. It was the supreme moment of parallel confusion.
People were waking up to a chilly, foggy Saturday morning. Starting just after 8 a.m., the ground began shaking and the air was filled with a sound that was impossible to describe. A continuous cavalcade of staccato booms and blasts lasted several minutes. Houses shook to their foundations. Windows vibrated so violently that people thought they would break.
In Sabine County, US Forest Service law officer Doug Hamilton was convinced it was Judgment Day. He opened the front door of his house, prepared to meet Jesus.
Less than a year and a half after the attacks of September 11, 2001, timber sale forester Greg Cohrs wondered if a terrorist nuclear blast had destroyed Houston or New Orleans.
In the small town of Hemphill, near the border with Louisiana, children and their parents were gathered in the barn of the youth arena for the first-day weigh-in for the county’s livestock show. The open-sided building began to shudder and shake as the sound of “sonic booms times one thousand” tore the air. Elementary school teacher Sunny Whittington ran outside and saw dozens of smoke trails—some corkscrewing across the sky, others continuing straight. Her husband speculated that two planes has collided above the town.
Some people heard sounds like helicopter blades, as pieces of metal whirled through the air and hit the ground around them. Dogs ran in circles, barking at the sky.
Fishermen on Toledo Bend Reservoir saw something that appeared to be the size of a compact car hit the water at high speed. The ensuing wave nearly swamped their boat.
Sabine County Sheriff Tom Maddox was in his office in Hemphill. The building shook so hard that he thought the roof of the jail collapsed. Almost immediately afterward, all of his phone lines lit up. One person reported a train derailment at one end of the county. Another reported a plane crash. Yet another said that the natural gas pipeline traversing the county had exploded. What the heck was going on?
Unknown to most residents at the moment, the space shuttle Columbia, traveling at Mach 12 and more than 180,000 feet in altitude, had disintegrated at about 8:00 in a “catastrophic event” over Palestine, Texas. Most citizens were not even aware that a shuttle mission was in progress that day.
For the next half hour, debris from the ship—and the remains of her crew—rained down along a path 250 miles long and 20 miles wide, stretching from near Dallas to Fort Polk, Louisiana.
The constant thunderous noise heard by the residents was caused by more than 80,000 pieces of the shuttle, each breaking the sound barrier and creating its own sonic boom as it fell to the ground.
Within half an hour, word spread about news reports that Columbia had crashed.
The town of Nacogdoches, 60 miles west of Hemphill, was in the direct path of the disintegrating shuttle. Metallic debris was coming down everywhere around the town.
Law enforcement began responding to debris sightings. Word came from NASA that the material might be contaminated with toxic fuels. The location of everything found was to be GPS recorded if possible, with items left in place for subsequent collection.
By noon that first day, the remains of a Columbia crew member had been located. Mark Kelly was the first NASA astronaut on the scene. Along with Maddox, FBI special agent Terry Lane, and Hemphill Baptist pastor “Brother Fred” Raney, they conducted a short service for the fallen astronaut. For the next two weeks, a NASA astronaut, Maddox, an FBI special agent, and Raney would be at the recovery of each of Columbia‘s crew and perform the solemn service at the “chapel in the woods.”
Meanwhile, an Incident Command Post was established at Hemphill’s volunteer fire department. Billy Ted Smith, the emergency management coordinator for the East Texas Mutual Aid Association, shared the role of incident commander with Sheriff Maddox for the Sabine, Jasper, and Newton County area.
Greg Cohrs was called in and tasked with organizing the response to the hundreds of reports that were pouring into the fire station. As the day wore on, the situation became more chaotic, as concerned citizens sidetracked the volunteers who were attempting to respond to the debris reports. Cohrs eventually restored order and began planning a more methodical response to the situation.
As evening came, Cohrs had plotted what he believed was the centerline of the debris field through Sabine County. He would organize searches for Columbia‘s crew beginning at daybreak the next morning.