Landing Day—Silence and Shock

(The following is the Preface to our upcoming book, “Bringing Columbia Home,” which will be published late this year.)

Kennedy Space Center
February 1, 2003

Twin sonic booms in rapid succession, one from the space shuttle’s nose and one from its vertical tail, were always the fanfare announcing the mighty spacecraft’s arrival. The timing of the phenomenon was determined by the immutable laws of physics. Three minutes and fifteen seconds before landing, as the shuttle glided toward the Kennedy Space Center, it dropped below the speed of sound and produced the double concussion. Loud and unmistakable, it could be heard up and down Florida’s Space Coast. This was our cue to start scanning the skies for a victorious space shuttle, descending toward us in the distance.

Columbia and her crew of seven astronauts were coming home from sixteen days in orbit. After six million miles circling the Earth, they had reentered the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean, crossed the California coast, and then flown over the Desert Southwest and Texas en route to Florida. These last few miles would be their victory lap in front of her astronaut crewmembers’ families and the KSC personnel who tended her on the ground.

As KSC’s launch director, I was one of the officials who would welcome Columbia home. At 9:12 this cool morning, we listened and waited for the thunderous sonic booms, like the percussion of an artillery volley. Oddly, the sounds were completely absent.

Over the loudspeaker feed from Mission Control, we heard repeated calls to the crew: “Columbia, Houston. Comm check.” Long moments of silence punctuated each call. “Columbia, Houston. UHF comm check.”

I found this confusing and alarming. I looked up at the clouds and turned to Wayne Hale, former ascent and entry flight director, and asked him, “What do you think?”

He thought for a moment and responded with a single word: “Beacons.”

That one word hit me hard. The astronauts’ orange launch and entry suits were equipped with radio beacons, in case the crew needed to bail out during a landing approach.

Hale clearly knew the crew was in trouble. He was already thinking about how to find them.

My God.

The landing countdown clock positioned between the runway and us counted down to zero. Then it began counting up. It always did this after shuttle landings, but we had never really paid attention to it, because there had always been a vehicle on the runway and that clock had become irrelevant.

The shuttle is never late. It simply cannot be.

Columbia wasn’t here. She could not have landed elsewhere along the route. She was somewhere between orbit and KSC, but we didn’t know where.

I tried to sort out my thoughts. Something was horribly wrong. An indescribably empty feeling swept over me. My position as launch director was one of knowledge and control. Now I had neither.

Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral have seen more than their share of launch disasters. A launch catastrophe is unmistakable—tremendous noise, a horrendous fireball, and smoking debris falling into the ocean. My mind flashed back to the frigid morning of January 28, 1986. I had seen Challenger lift off from pad 39B and disappear into a violent conflagration shortly afterward. I remember thinking that Challenger would emerge from the fireball, fly around, and land behind me at the Shuttle Landing Facility. But we never saw Challenger again. I recalled leaving the site with a few friends as debris and smoke trails continued to rain down into the Atlantic, just off the coast. It was a terrible thing to witness in person.

Today’s situation was completely different. Our emergency plans assumed that a landing problem would happen within sight of the runway. A failed landing attempt would be immediately obvious to everyone at the runway.

Today, there was nothing to see, nothing to hear. We had no idea what to do.

Columbia simply wasn’t here.

We all knew something awful must have happened to Columbia, but our senses could tell us nothing. The audio feed from Mission Control had gone eerily silent.

The breeze picked up. Low rippling clouds masked the sun. The quiet was broken only by a few cell phones that began ringing in the bleachers where spectators and the crew’s families were waiting. The astronauts in the ground support crew huddled briefly by the convoy command vehicle. Then they sprinted toward the family viewing stand.

I glanced over at Sean O’Keefe, NASA’s administrator. I could see he was clearly in shock. O’Keefe’s deputy, former astronaut Bill Readdy, stood at his side. Readdy looked me in the eye and asked, “Contingency?” Unable to speak, I simply nodded.

Readdy carried a notebook containing NASA’s agency-wide contingency plan for spaceflight emergencies. Ever the pragmatist, O’Keefe had ordered this plan updated within hours of his becoming administrator in late 2001. Now, barely one year later, the plan had to be activated. The procedures designated Readdy to make the official call. Readdy opened the book and told O’Keefe that he was declaring a spaceflight contingency.

Gathering my thoughts and trying to keep my emotions in check, I told the officials to meet me in my office back at the Launch Control Center, about two and one-half miles to the south. We could confer there in private and get more information about the situation.

KSC security personnel and astronaut escorts quickly led the crew’s families away from viewing stands to a bus that would take them to the privacy of the crew quarters. The other spectators—many of whom were friends of the crew or members of the crew’s extended families—were also ushered to waiting buses.

There was no announcement of what had happened, but everyone knew that it must be something dreadful. Few words were spoken. People wept and hugged each other as their initial emptiness slowly filled with grief.

In the utterly inadequate jargon of astronauts and space workers, this was going to be a bad day.

As I hustled back to my vehicle, I had no concept for just how long this horrible day would last—or how inspiring its aftermath would ultimately be.

(c) 2017 Mike Leinbach and Jonathan Ward

Tomorrow: The Sky Is Falling

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The landing convoy deploys to KSC’s Shuttle Landing Facility to greet a returning space shuttle (NASA/Ben Smegelsky, 2011)

Getting Ready for Reentry

The final meeting of the Mission Management Team (MMT) during Columbia‘s STS-107 mission was held on Thursday, January 30, 2003.

Everything seemed to be going well. The biggest headache was the continued degradation of the Water Pump Package, which was a crucial part of the heat exchanger on board the shuttle. A breakdown in the Spacehab module’s dehumidifier early in the flight, combined with the effects of the balky heat exchanger running, required the crew to actively manage the environmental systems in the ship to keep the cabin comfortable.

The crew, divided into a Red Team and a Blue Team, had completed most of their Spacehab work. A few final experiments were underway, while the results of others were being stowed for the return to Earth.

On the ground, the Structures Working Group was verifying that Columbia‘s weight was acceptable. At a projected “downweight” of 234,011 pounds (106,146 kg), Columbia would be the heaviest space shuttle ever to return from orbit.

Some people wondered if the extra weight—which could translate to extra heat during reentry—might overly stress the thermal protection system, if it had been damaged by the foam strike during launch. Someone even suggested tossing the Spacehab module overboard to reduce weight and heat. That drastic measure was neither possible nor taken seriously.

The MMT minutes showed that Kennedy Space Center was planning to gather the handheld cameras and external tank films as soon as Columbia landed. Someone would fly the cameras and films immediately—aboard the Shuttle Training Aircraft—to Marshall Spaceflight Center for analysis.

As on all other missions, an astronaut had been assigned to photograph Columbia‘s external tank as it separated from the ship right after the vehicle reached space. Such pictures were typically downlinked to the ground at the end of the first day’s operations. That never happened with STS-107. NASA never got to see how large the piece of foam was that struck the ship or exactly where it came from.

The handheld and ship-mounted cameras on Columbia became high-priority search targets during the recovery effort after the accident. Parts of one of the cameras that might have recorded the external tank’s separation were found on the shore of the Toledo Bend Reservoir. Neither the body of that camera nor its film were ever recovered.

The projected weather for February 1, landing day, looked good both at Kennedy Space Center and Edwards Air Force Base. Since Kennedy’s weather looked favorable for at least four days, the recommendation was made not to activate the Edwards landing team for the moment.

The MMT wrapped up its meeting. They agreed that no further MMT meetings were required during the mission.

In the back rooms, some engineers were still very worried. They kicked around worst-case scenarios. What if heat penetrated the landing gear wheel well during reentry? Could one or more tires be deflated? Could there be other damage that might threaten a safe return?

Next time: Landing Day

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Columbia’s “Red Team” members prepare for their sleep period in the mid-deck bunks, January 20, 2003. From left: Laurel Clark, Rick Husband, and Kalpana Chawla. The unoccupied bunk is for Ilan Ramon, who was probably taking the photograph. (NASA photo S107E05220)

Remembering

“It is today that we remember and honor the crews of Apollo 1 and Challenger. They made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in service to their country and for all mankind. Their dedication and devotion to the exploration of space was an inspiration to each of us and still motivates people around the world to achieve great things in service to others. As we orbit the Earth, we will join the entire NASA family for a moment of silence in their memory. Our thoughts and prayers go to their families as well.”
–Rick Husband, January 28, 2003, on board Columbia during STS-107

Apollo 1. Challenger. Columbia. And the other astronauts who gave their lives in the pursuit of the final frontier.

We pause this time every year to remember them, thank their families, and rededicate ourselves to ‘do it right.’ The passage of time matters not. We owe them this and so much more.

This year NASA unveiled a new memorial to the Apollo 1 crew at the KSC Visitor’s Center in the Apollo/Saturn V building. I saw it yesterday. It affected me in two ways – it’s just as moving as “Forever Remembered” for the Challenger and Columbia crews and, secondly, I’m not alone in thinking ‘it’s about time.’

But let me explain.

Displaying debris from the Shuttles and the hatches from the Apollo capsule was not a NASA decision. It was first and foremost always at the sole discretion of the crew families. NASA may request it, but THEY decide it. And it must be unanimous for each crew as a whole. And so on this 50th anniversary of the fire that killed Grissom, White, and Chaffee their families agreed it was time to honor their loved ones. For this guy, I’m glad they did. It completes our feeble attempt to thank them all.

Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke told a story today about one of his visits to a factory making components for his flight. He saw a man sweeping the floor and asked him what his job was. The man responded, “I’m helping to put men on the moon.”

He was not a floor sweeper. He was a member of the Apollo team. Perfect.

The memorials to the fallen astronauts should be required viewing by everyone in the business.

It can’t help but to instill or reinforce that floor sweeper’s attitude in each of us.

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The new Apollo 1 remembrance gallery at the KSC Apollo/Saturn V Visitors Center (photos by Mike Leinbach)

The Mission

As I write this entry the crew of Columbia was beginning their 6th day in orbit 14 years ago. Those of us involved in the series of Mission Management Team meetings were aware of the foam strike on the Orbiter. Most people just casually following the mission probably didn’t know.

The astronauts on board were conducting the mission plan as written, totally unaware of the strike. It would be on Day 7 that a brief summary of the event was sent to them, ending in “… absolutely no concern for entry.” Houston also uplinked a brief video of the foam strike. That was sent to them to give them a heads-up in case reporters asked a question about the foam strike during a press conference.

We held just four MMT meetings during the mission, essentially falling back into a pattern of ‘meet only if something comes up’ rather than one of meeting each day and stating nothing has come up. It should have been similar to the launch Go/No-Go poll. Rather then assuming a system is Go, ASK THEM. Make them commit. We didn’t do this in the STS-107 MMT meetings. We assumed the best. That was Bad.

I’m not going to get into a blame game. Not gonna happen.

Suffice to say, numerous Shuttle program management strategies AFTER the accident changed significantly. MMT meetings were required to be held every day—NO EXCEPTIONS. All projects were polled at each meeting in an attempt to drive out any issues or concerns. Dissenting opinions were not only encouraged, but sought out. A new “open” atmosphere was palpable and it made it much easier for lower level engineers to speak up. And I can say emphatically that these improvements served us well to the very end.

I will make one point, however, that I hope all future manned (and unmanned) program leaders will heed. When offered more data to help make a decision, take it. We had a sort of trite, but straightforward saying when tackling a tough problem – “Trust in God, all others bring data.” Of course I’m referring to the option of getting on-orbit photographs of Columbia from other Government agencies. We didn’t. We should have. Why didn’t we? All sorts of things factored in, but it’s mostly because we had gotten overconfident that foam hits couldn’t harm the Orbiter, though they were completely outside its design spec. Complacency from previous non-critical hits clouded our decisions. Columbia’s hits were characterized as ‘turnaround issues’ not ‘safety of flight’ issues. And even in the face of extremely knowledgeable engineers trying to get us to listen to their concerns, we pressed on.

Would the pictures have led to a different outcome? Given the timing required to effect a rescue mission, probably not. Getting the pictures and committing to the rescue would have had to have happened unrealistically early in the mission. But the point is the same – get data. Get all the data possible for making critical decisions. And be as blind to flight history data as possible. It can be the wolf waiting to pounce.

We learned thousands of lessons through the thirty-year Shuttle program. Fourteen astronauts paid the ultimate price for some of them. I hope we were the last program to experience what bad decisions can ultimately mean. However, I’m sorry to say that I’m  sure we won’t be the last program to learn lessons the hard way.

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A visible-light photo of Columbia on orbit taken from Hawaii by the US Air Force Maui Optical and Supercomputing Site (AMOS). The damaged area of the left wing is hidden behind the open cargo bay doors.

The Foam Strike

Columbia‘s launch on January 16, 2003 appeared to be smooth and uneventful. The shuttle reached orbit as planned and the crew immediately began preparing to operate the experiments in the Spacehab double module in the payload bay.

Later in the day, the imagery analysis team began analyzing the films from the tracking cameras that monitored Columbia‘s ascent. One of the cameras had not worked at all, and another was out of focus. However, another camera showed what appeared to be a large chunk of foam falling off the external tank and impacting the orbiter’s left wing 81.7 seconds into the flight.

Ann Micklos represented the thermal protection system team during the first viewing of the launch films. She said, “People’s jaws dropped. You could have heard a pin drop when we saw the foam strike. We watched it again and again and again.”

No one could tell whether underside of the wing or the wing’s leading edge bore the brunt of the impact. No one had ever seen such a large piece of foam hit the orbiter before.

The nearest precedent was ironically only four months earlier, on the launch of STS-112 in October 2002. When the reusable solid rocket boosters were towed to port after their retrieval from the Atlantic, someone noticed a large dent in the metal ring that attached the left booster to the external tank. What caused that?

Analysts examined the images taken of the ET took when Atlantis jettisoned the tank. A piece of insulating foam the size of a laser printer cartridge box had broken off of the external tank at the left bipod ramp—the structure that attaches the orbiter’s nose to the tank. The foam impacted the attachment ring at a relative speed of about 500 mph and created a deep dent in the solid metal.

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Photo of missing foam on the external tank of STS-112. Columbia‘s ET shed a larger piece of foam from the same area. (NASA photo)

The STS-112 impact was mentioned in the flight readiness review for the next mission— STS-113—but it was not classified as a safety of flight issue. “More than 100 External Tanks have flown with only 3 documented instances of significant foam loss on a bipod ramp,” the report said. Without a deep and thorough discussion of the issue and possible ramifications, the reviewers cleared the tank was cleared to fly “as-is.”

The issue was not even discussed at the flight readiness review for STS-107.

It was an example of the normalization of deviance attitude that had doomed Challenger and had now become part of NASA’s culture once again. In essence, managers felt that although foam loss was not meeting specifications, it had never caused a significant problem before. Therefore, it was safe to continue flying.

Now, a piece almost twice that size of the one that damaged STS-112’s booster had broken off of Columbia‘s tank and hit the shuttle’s wing.

In their briefing to the Mission Management Team on January 17, the day after the launch, the video analysis team noted that the strike had occurred. However, since there were so many unknowns, the issue was sent back for further study. The meeting minutes did not even mention the foam strike.

…from the crew perspective this was a good launch and there were no issues to report…The launch film revealed no significant items.

The next MMT meeting was scheduled for Tuesday, January 21.

Next time: Imagery in orbit

Launch Day

The launch day for Columbia and the STS-107 mission finally arrived on January 16, 2003. The mission had been rescheduled 13 times since NASA first announced it in 1999.

Commander Rick Husband, pilot Willie McCool, payload commander Mike Anderson, mission specialists Kalpana “KC” Chawla, Laurel Clark, and Dave Brown, and payload specialist Ilan Ramon had been training together as a team for several years. The mission delays, while frustrating, gave them time to bond even more closely as a family. They were ready to fly.

This was Bob Cabana’s first mission as the head of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate, and he was happy to be with his friends on the 107 crew as they suited up in the Operations and Checkout Building. Astronauts Kent “Rommel” Rominger (chief astronaut) and Jerry Ross (heading the Vehicle Integration Test Office) were also on hand on this joyous occasion. Robert Hanley from the Vehicle Integration Test Team taped the proceedings with Dave Brown’s video camera. Brown had been compiling a video documentary of the crew’s training and time together.

Before they exited the O&C Building for their ride to the launch pad, Husband gathered his crew in a circle for a moment of prayer. He recited the verses of Joshua 1:6-9, concluding with, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

The ebullient crew strode out of the O&C Building. Husband and McCool reached over their heads and patted the door frame in yet another launch day tradition.

Crew walkout for STS107Credit; Scott Andrews/NASA
The STS-107 crew and their entourage leave the O&C Building. (NASA photo KSC-03PD-0109)

The Astrovan stopped at a checkpoint near the VAB. Rominger left to fly the Shuttle Training Aircraft to check on conditions aloft in case the crew needed to fly an abort that would return them to the Shuttle Landing Facility. Cabana, Ross, Hanley, and the flight surgeon left to go to the launch control center. The surgeon went to man the medical console in the firing room. Cabana, Ross, and Hanley joined the crew’s families.

At the launch pad, the closeout crew strapped in the crew and said their goodbyes. The crew went through the pre-launch checklist. Everything looked to be in great shape.

The countdown proceeded smoothly. There was a scare just before the count came out of the final T minus 9 minute hold. An unidentified blip appeared on the radar—something that appeared to be headed toward the launch pad. With security at its highest point for any shuttle launch and an Israeli astronaut on board, Mike Leinbach came as close as he ever had to telling the crew to punch out. However, the issue cleared up in time for the count to resume. (This situation is described in much more detail in our upcoming book.)

Leinbach got on the comm loop with the crew: “If there ever was a time to use the phrase, ‘Good things come to people who wait’, this is the one time. From the many, many people who put this mission together: Good luck and Godspeed.”

Husband replied, “We appreciate it, Mike. The Lord has blessed us with a beautiful day here, and we’re going to have a great mission. We’re ready to go.”

A few seconds before 10:39 a.m., Columbia’s three main engines ignited. The ship “twanged’—rocked forward by the off-center impulse—and then returned to a vertical position. At that instant, the solid rocket boosters ignited, explosive bolts were fired, and Columbia roared off into a beautiful blue sky.

It was the last time anyone at KSC would see her as an intact vehicle.

Next: The foam strike

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Columbia blasts off on her final mission, January 16, 2003. (NASA photo KSC-03PD-0116)

Launch Countdown

Why was a Shuttle launch countdown three days long? The answer to this question has roots back to the ‘elders’.

Those of us that were part of the final years of the thirty-year operational life of the Space Transportation System inherited some truly thoughtful processes from those who came before us. Some processes were born as early as the Mercury program, nourished through the Gemini and Apollo days, and adapted to the Shuttle needs.

In architectural design, it’s called “form follows function.” Ditto for many of the ways we processed hardware and launched our friends into space.

Granted, some early concepts for a new adventure like this didn’t pan out. The good ones did, and they live on today in virtually all launch system designs. I was asked to design the launch team for the Constellation program in the 2005 timeframe. As part of that effort a small group was formed and we benchmarked numerous high-power teams looking for best practices (and worst!). It amazed us how closely other successful teams resembled ours. Why? Because it worked, and worked well. Period. Nuclear subs, unmanned rockets, ESA and Russian space programs, emergency response authorities, aircraft flight testing, and others, had teams very, very similar to ours. But I stray…

Three-day long launch countdowns? The basic reason was it was easier and more effective to control the myriad of tasks in those three days under one governing, integrated procedure than had they all been conducted as individual, stove-piped operations. Integrating all the tasks under one orchestra leader (the NASA Test Director) allowed for better command and control, and visibility for managers like me. The NTD would integrate and lead all the element Test Conductors, ensuring no conflicts, or overlaps, or omissions.

What tasks? In the simplest form they were these. On the first two days:

  1. Pad closeout and securing
  2. Fuel Cell cryogenic reactant loading
  3. Communication system activation
  4. Flight Crew equipment stowage
  5. Rotating Service Structure retraction to its launch position.

On day 3—Launch countdown day:

  1. External Tank fuel load
  2. Astronaut boarding
  3. Launch.

That’s basically it. Within these major tasks were hundreds of steps , but that was about it.

This basic design was created by my predecessors and not changed much at all for the 135 Shuttle flights. Norm Carlson, Apollo Launch Vehicle Test Conductor (the forerunner to the Shuttle NTD position) knew it would work. His compatriots knew it would work. We inherited it and it still worked.

Like many of the other processes we (the “late bloomers”) inherited, we enjoyed ones already tested and proven successful.

To Norm, Tharpe, Tribe, Horace, Page, Sieck, Fuller, Breakfield, and so many, many others—Thanks.

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Launch countdown sign at Kennedy Space Center. (source: The Register)