Barksdale AFB and Lufkin, Texas

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.

Next time: The CAIB

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The Salvation Army provided food for the hundreds of command center personnel at the Lufkin Civic Center. (Photo by Jan Amen)

The Sky Is Falling

February 1, 8:05 a.m. CST
Deep East Texas

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.

Next time: Barksdale and Lufkin

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The Etoile (Texas) Volunteer Fire Department responds to the first confirmed sighting of Columbia debris in their community, February 1, 2003. (Photo by Jan Amen)

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