Columbia’s Nose Landing Gear

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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STS-107 and the ISS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perpetual Practice, Perfect Performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Good) Scope Creep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing the bigger picture

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazing.