White powder from outer space?

Over the course of the 100 days following the Columbia accident, NASA and the EPA responded to 12,000 calls from residents in Texas and Louisiana about space shuttle debris sightings.

Representatives from NASA and the EPA personally investigated every call. The EPA was responsible for checking the debris for hazards, rendering it safe, and then transporting it to one of the four collection centers along the debris path in Texas. The NASA representative made an initial determination whether or not the debris was likely from the space shuttle.

Many of the items found by local residents were either extremely hazardous (like pyrotechnic devices or pressure vessels with hypergolic propellants) or turned out to be crucial to the accident investigation. NASA was deeply indebted to the citizens who called in such findings.

However, some of the items were of more dubious origin.

Here’s a story about a Columbia debris sighting that won’t make it into our book, but I think it’s worth sharing. Pat Adkins, who was a KSC quality inspector, was deployed to Sabine County, Texas to aid with the recovery of Columbia debris. Here’s his story:

“We responded to a call about some unusual debris. A policeman was holding back a crowd and had placed crime scene tape all around this mound of white, crystalline-looking stuff. And it had one little blue dot in the middle of it. There was nothing else near it—no cylinders, no containers, no nothing.

“The woman who lived there was with him, and the policeman was kind of rolling his eyes. And so that kind of set the tone for us when we looked at him.

“I pulled her aside, and I questioned her. The woman said, ‘This was not here the night before.’ And I said, ‘There’s just nothing from the shuttle that this could possibly be. It didn’t come from the experiment packages.’ But she was insistent.

“I started looking around at all the other stuff that’s in the back area. It’s on the lip of the woods, in back of all of their places, and it’s like everybody’s junkyard back there.

“I said, ‘So tell me something: Do you have a water softener?’ She said, ‘I don’t, but my neighbor does.’ I said, ‘Well, you know, you use rock salt in water softeners.’ And she responded, ‘Yeah, I know you use salt. But this isn’t salt, ’cause it didn’t taste salty.’

“I chuckled a little bit. The poor EPA guy with me is starting to lose it. And even the cop was laughing. I said, ‘So let me get this straight: You think this came out of a spacecraft that has broken up in the upper atmosphere, and you saw it, and thought it was odd enough to call people about. But yet you tasted it?’

“And she got indignant and said, ‘Well, y’all think we’re a bunch of bumpkins anyway.’ Those were her words, I’ll never forget it. And I looked at the EPA guy, and I said, ‘I don’t remember ever saying that.’

“I said to the EPA guy, ‘Look, the only way that this lady is gonna have peace of mind is if we take this, so let’s get a bag.’ And so we dug it up out of her yard, and then smoothed her yard over.

“It was rock salt. The EPA guy had that bag of rock salt in the back of his truck for three weeks. He didn’t know what to do with it. I certainly didn’t want it in my collection area!”

Actual shuttle debris near Etoile, Texas on February 1, 2003. (Courtesy of Jan Amen)

15 Years

Why the book? Why now?

The short answers are, the story needs to be told, and, someone with discipline and writing ability is helping.

Jonathan and I met at Norm Carlson’s memorial service on March 14, 2015. A month later, we decided to collaborate to tell the untold piece of Columbia’s final mission.

Many of you knew Norm. He was my mentor, hiring me into the NASA Test Director’s office after Challenger. He was also my very close friend, and friend to so many at KSC and beyond. He earned all the accolades received at the services. From being the Launch Vehicle Test Conductor for the Apollo missions, his launch team leadership in the early days of Shuttle, to his unabashed pride in NASA and love for throwing parties, Norm was special. A commemorative coin given out at the services said it best, “Norm Carlson a True KSC Legend.” He would have loved the tribute. And Bobbie, his wife “forever”, would have, too. (A room in the Launch Control Center is named for Bobbie, a tribute to a truly fine lady.)

Jonathan and I kicked around the book idea and both concluded it NEEDED to be told, and the story needed to be written before more years robbed us of memories, or worse. The passage of time made research for Jonathan’s two KSC-based Apollo books particularly difficult. Fortunately, all that research was done with Norm’s awesome help. Unfortunately, Norm missed the books’ actual releases.

With Jonathan’s help, the story of Columbia and her final crew’s recovery, reconstruction, and use for the betterment of spacecraft design will be told.

I only wish Norm could read it.

Mike and Jonathan, five minutes after we decided to write the book together.

Columbia’s Nose Landing Gear

Columbia‘s NLG (Boeing photo)

One of the most remarkable pieces of wreckage to make it to the ground after Columbia‘s destruction was her nose landing gear (NLG). The NLG was instantly recognizable to anyone who had worked with the space shuttles, and it was a sobering and saddening reminder of the once-proud ship and her crew. The NLG would have been the last part of Columbia to touch down on the runway had she made it home on February 1, 2003.

Pat Adkins (left) hoses mud off the NLG at the Hemphill collection center. (Photo courtesy Texas Forest Service)

Someone found Columbia‘s NLG just inland from a cove on Six Mile Bay on the Toledo Bend Reservoir on February 18, 2003. The NLG arrived at NASA’s collection center at Hemphill, Texas in the bed of a pickup truck that afternoon. Pat Adkins, a quality inspector from Kennedy Space Center, serving on NASA’s Mishap Investigation Team, hosed down and scrubbed the mud off the once-pristine piece of the shuttle. The tires were deflated, the bead was burned off, and the steering actuator arm was missing. Adkins could see where one side of the strut had been exposed to the effects of plasma and hypersonic re-entry.

As with many of the other pieces of Columbia‘s debris, the sight of the landing gear was enough to cause some NASA workers to break down into tears. It was a “whack on the side of the head with a two-by-four” that caused people to confront the reality of the shuttle’s violent destruction.

Everyone from Kennedy Space Center who worked on Columbia‘s recovery and reconstruction had a similar encounter and reaction at some point in the process. No matter how “professional” you try to be, at some point your deepest emotions will come to the surface. It is an unavoidable part of our human reaction to such tragic events. One of the most remarkable parts of the story is that people were able to support each other through their individual and collective grief and then get on with the work of figuring out what caused the accident.


The nose landing gear on the floor of the reconstruction hangar, March 7, 2003. (NASA photo KSC-03pd-0612)

The NLG arrived at the reconstruction hangar at Kennedy Space Center in early March, and was placed on the floor grid near the front of the vehicle.

The NLG is now in the Columbia Preservation Room in KSC’s Vehicle Assembly Building, one of the first items that visitors see upon entering the secure facility. There is a pan underneath the strut to catch hydraulic fluid that occasionally seeps from the piece. It’s hard not to think of the landing gear as a holy relic that still bleeds.

As with all of the other pieces of Columbia‘s debris on display, it serves as a stern reminder that spaceflight is extraordinarily difficult and very risky—every decision has consequences.

The nose landing gear in the Columbia Preservation Room, February 1, 2004. (Photo courtesy Robert Pearlman, collectSPACE.com)

Parallel Confusion

One of the most interesting things I’ve realized while doing the research for the book is what I call ‘Parallel Confusion.’

Those of us at KSC waiting for Columbia to touch down were confused when she didn’t. Those wonderful people in east Texas were confused when they heard the horrible sounds of thousands of pieces of debris falling to the ground.

We didn’t know WHERE it was. They didn’t know WHAT it was.

We were experiencing an emptiness unlike any other, they were experiencing sensory input like none before. All of us would soon come together to solve our mysteries.

A stark example of the depth of those differences that morning happened about an hour after Columbia and her crew should have been on the runway: We were holding our first meeting in the Launch Control Center to lay out our initial actions while the first crew member was being protected by locals having just been found.

Our job; their nightmare.

Within minutes of that, astronauts from JSC were on site taking care of their comrades. Within hours, senior NASA reps were on hand to establish preliminary control of the situation. That evening our first KSC support arrived at Barksdale AFB. The next morning would see us all begin to sort things out.

Astronaut Veterans

On this Veterans Day, I found myself wondering: How many astronauts served in the US military?

America’s first astronauts were all active-duty military servicemen. Of the original  Mercury Seven, three were Navy men (Shepard, Carpenter, and Schirra), three were from the US Air Force (Grissom, Cooper, and Slayton), and one (Glenn) was a Marine. The next group of astronauts included America’s first civilian astronaut (Neil Armstrong), although he was a former Naval aviator, a veteran of the Korean War.

Test pilot experience was a requirement for the first two groups of astronauts. Military pilot experience was allowed as a substitute for test pilot experience in the third group. It wasn’t until the fourth group of astronauts, “The Scientists,” selected in 1965, that NASA waived military pilot experience for astronauts—although astronauts in that group had to train to be pilots if they didn’t have flight experience.

The last class of astronauts selected, 2013’s “8-Balls,” has six active-duty military officers among the eight members of the class.

All told, 219 of the 330 former and current American astronauts served in the armed forces. All branches have been represented, but there have been more astronauts from the Navy and Air Force than the other branches.

It’s hard to beat the knowledge and experience gained in military service. Courage, commitment to public service, teamwork, maximum performance despite physical and emotional hardship, calm focus in the face of danger, comfort with complexity, attention to detail—traits that make a good serviceman or servicewoman are those which also make a good astronaut.

The crew of STS-107 included five active-duty US military astronauts and one active-duty Israeli military astronaut. Commander Rick Husband and Mission Specialist Mike Anderson flew for the US Air Force. Pilot Willie McCool and Mission Specialists Dave Brown and Laurel Clark had extensive experience with the US Navy. Ilan Ramon had flown combat missions with the Israeli Air Force, including the attack on Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor. All told, the five aviators on Columbia‘s crew (Husband, McCool, Brown, Anderson, and Ramon) had over 17,300 hours of military flight experience.

I’m the proud father of an active-duty Army officer with three deployments to Afghanistan under his belt, and my brother served for several years in Vietnam. I’m deeply humbled by the sacrifices undertaken by brave men and women in service of their country. I can never adequately express my gratitude to the members of our armed forces who help keep our world safe and our country free. And I offer a special “thank you” to those whose sense of service and courage took them into outer space for the betterment of mankind.


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.

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!)

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