After Ten Years – Why Write Now?

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:  What place is this?  Where are we now?  I am the grass; I cover all.         – Carl Sandburg, “Grass” 1918

Very recently, my 7 year old grandson was traveling with his parents through the east Texas town of Hemphill.  In that place, where much of the debris of Columbia came to rest on February 1, 2003, the townspeople have built a very appropriate little memorial and museum for the Columbia crew.  My grandson called me that evening and asked me to explain to him what happened to Columbia.  That is a tough request coming from a serious questioner. 

Recently some media outlets have sniffed around looking for stories on the tenth anniversary.  And too, there have been recent conversations with old colleagues about those events and their causes. 

All of this has brought the searing memories from a decade ago into the forefront of my mind.  Not that those memories has ever left me; the memories of early 2003.  I was intimately involved in the events leading up to the Columbia tragedy so maybe that is to be expected.  But often in the wee hours of the morning when sleep fails, the questions return:  why did it happen, how did we allow it to happen, and what could I have done to prevent it.

Some others who lived through those days remember things from different perspectives, they had different experiences, but – somewhat frighteningly – remember events we shared in common in different ways.  The passage of time, too, is riddling my memories with holes like Swiss cheese.  Names escape me, details are getting fuzzy, and though concentrated thought can bring some things back from the recesses, others are gone forever.  Some memories stand out like a lightning bolt in a dark night; many others of those events are gone into the darkness.  If I am ever to write down my experience, the time is now.

So what is my purpose in writing this down?  Certainly the facts of the events are well documented in official paperwork.  The causes have been examined and scrutinized in fine detail by experts.  But I lived through it.  My memories are unique; the lessons that I have learned – which may be of some help to others in similar extreme endeavors – are not the same as those residing in academic studies or professional reports.

Some may conclude it is narcissism that makes me write.  Or perhaps my motivation is a response to some type of Freudian guilt complex.  Could be, I’m no psychologist.  But I do know that I hope for a catharsis when I write it down, once and for all, and publish it for the world to see and critique.  Beyond that, I have no conscious objective.

So the disclaimer is that these are my memories.  Others have other recollections.  Where my memories do not square with the official accounts, you will have to be the judge.

So here goes.  Look for installments at irregular intervals over the next several months.  Comment, critique, and question all you want.  The facts should not be new, they were widely disseminated.  My conclusions are my own.

In the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report, they said that it was “an accident rooted in history.”  Aren’t they all?  Accidents always have roots in history.  Somebody set out to do something overly ambitious, or failed to account for human failings, or made a mistake that somewhere down the road turned into an accident when the right combination of human failings converged.  For the next several posts I will give you my insights into the history and culture of the space shuttle program – of NASA’s human space efforts – and draw some personal conclusions.

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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38 Responses to After Ten Years – Why Write Now?

  1. Look forward to it, Wayne. Appreciate your brutal honesty. As then we can learn all of the lessons, both from fact, and from the humans who shaped events prior, during, and after Columbia.

  2. Hank Jarrett says:

    It is a rare time that we look forward to something painful. Your perspective, and especially your personal conclusions, from the human side, represent one of those rare times. I have never been able to purge the pain of the loss of Columbia, even though I was not directly involved. As a safety engineer I have reviewed the CAIB many times, never feeling fully satisfied with the answers. Sometimes raising the pain to the surface again allows us, not to rid ourselves of it, but to at least better understand it and put regrets to positive use.

  3. look forward to your thoughts, was at the SLF that morning ready to shoot pix… RIP STS 107

  4. I also look forward to reading your insights into this event, Thank you for taking the time to write them down

  5. Jack Barnett says:

    typo: “shared in comment in different ways” — I suspect you mean “in common”

  6. skyweek says:

    Wasn’t “an accident rooted in history” the key line of the Rogers report on the *Challenger* accident? Applied to the Columbia disaster as well, of course; just don’t remember the CAIB using exactly the same wording.

  7. no one of consequence says:

    Good. This is really, really hard to face. I thank your grandson for asking it.

    We need to remember and struggle with the “why”. It’s the best memorial I can think of to the crew. I still remember the memory of the time. I saw the beginnings of the reentry myself with nothing more than eyeballs … and could see … issues.

    Take your time. Answer him well.

  8. sanfx says:

    memories stand out but it is WE who have to stand tough.

  9. Frank Graffagnino says:

    looking forward to those posts. thanks for sharing them!

  10. Phil says:

    Wayne, your words resonate we me more than I am prepared to admit. We all have regrets, bottled up inside. You were, at the time, given immense responsibility over a fairly risky task. Anyone stepping into a spaceship must understand the risks; we cannot anticipate everything and at the same time make progress. Pain requires closure. Often, closure is made with… an opening of the soul. Wayne, I am a stranger from Minnesota, but I so wish we could sit together, share some coffee, and share the words. Peace.

  11. Rob S. Parham says:

    Thank you for this undertaking.

  12. Don Hammel says:

    Wayne, I very much look forward to your rejuvenated thoughts on this most memorable event; it is hard to believe that almost ten years have passed. STS-107 will always remain in my thoughts as well. I was the KSC LRD on February 1, 2003 waiting for an orbiter and her crew that did not make it home that day. We initiated the only Shuttle Rapid Response Team deploying the first responders, I then rotated KSC Recovery Management Team duty with Denny Gagen, and then worked the Reconstruction Hangar with Steve Altemus as Columbia came home in thousands of pieces. The Hangar was a somber place and each individual that toured it had their own unique experience as they witnessed the condition of returned hardware that they had worked so hard to perfectly maintain. I have always held you in the highest regard and strongly suspect that the future content you generate on this topic would provide the foundation for a fine book.

  13. jeff44663 says:

    I applaud you, Wayne, for accepting what has to be a tough challenge to express in your own words what happened on that terrible day and about the events leading up to it. Honestly, it does not seem like 10 years. It only seems like a few years ago, but not ten, when I turned on the news on TV and couldn’t believe my eyes. I’m not a psychologist either, but I can’t help but think that your writing out your own insight will have a cathartic effect (I hope). Your perspective of being an insider will be unlike anything that is contained in the (let’s face it) sometimes dry and esoteric investigative reports. In short, your story needs to be told. Good luck with it. I’m certainly looking forward to reading your posts and don’t get discouraged about doing it!

  14. deepbluestatic says:

    Wayne, your honesty about this experience carries more weight than anything we’re fed through the PR channels. I’m not alone in applauding you for bringing us the truly human face of this tragedy – without judgement, without the “what if’s.” You are a brave man.

  15. I’ll never forget that morning. I woke up early, unusual for me, and just happened to hear it unfolding over public radio. The growing sense of dread and loss and grief which unfolded in the minutes and hours that morning is a clinging, haunting thing.

    I applaud you for doing this, and I hope that everyone can remember that no one human being was at fault that day. It was a failure of a system, and systems can only evolve through hard-won, often extremely difficult lessons.

    Keep pressing forward, and keep grasping at the future. That way lies the brightly shining truth.

  16. Steve Marsh says:

    Don’t let the nit pickers get to you Wayne. What you’re doing is admirable and I look forward to reading it. Thank you for doing this.

  17. Paul Knuth says:

    Wayne,

    The internets are cruel, and people are going to write nasty things as you go. Please ignore them and continue for the silent majority who will be enlightened and forever remember the account of events that you will share.

    I look forward to future posts.

    PK

  18. Will R says:

    Excellent article but I’m afraid you’ve misquoted the imitable Mr Sandburg.

  19. mosprott says:

    Wayne, please continue. Choose to ignore those who nitpick…they won’t go away, but you *can* ignore them. The rest of us will do just that.

  20. JT @ KSC says:

    Few others possess or display the humility that you share with us, not for your benefit, but rather to make us smarter, stronger and better. I watched and listened to you for many years and have always been amazed at your ability be patient while determining the right course. Kranz was great, but you are the best!

  21. Matthew says:

    Thank you for taking the time. I’m sure a great many people, and definitely myself included, are looking forward to hearing what you have to say. Also importantly, I hope that this helps you come to terms with the event if needed.

  22. Rod Wallace says:

    Our loss and failings effected each one of us in ways most people will never understand. The team always responds well after loss, but the team did not always do this things that could have been done over the years before the loss. I look forward to you comments.

  23. Don Denesiuk says:

    I like everyone else very much look forward to this telling of the tale from your personal perspective. All accidents are human error and as such any future endeavors that involve risk and humans will have accidents. I hope those that are making plans to achieve great things will be wiser for hearing what you have to say.

  24. Craig Young says:

    Wayne, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I look forward (though it will be painful for me as well as you and others) to reading future postings about this. It’s an event I am still struggling with as well.

  25. 2pollack says:

    Thank you, Wayne. You are doing great public service. You could’ve cashed-in on it, but decided to share with everyone. That is admirable.

  26. Dave H. says:

    “Some may conclude it is narcissism that makes me write.  Or perhaps my motivation is a response to some type of Freudian guilt complex.”

    If everyone thought like that history wouldn’t exist and we would learn nothing from our mistakes.
    Go easy on yourself, let the tears flow freely when they must.

    “Where my memories do not square with the official accounts, you will have to be the judge.”

    None of us are fit to judge your experience nor your memories.

    It’s always about the human element. A baseball player drops a fly ball and a game is lost. That’s a good example of a simple “disaster”. One element, one person, two outcomes. The “tree” looks like the letter “Y”

    One person didn’t seal Columbia’s doom. Complex systems require complex failures. One could say that the decision to side-mount the orbiters superceded everything that happened later. But that would be a misguided attempt to oversimplify what happened.

    I sent Reads my journals a few years ago. He thought them to be interesting.
    I know that ALL of you who were there still carry such a burden of guilt.

    You’re a Star Trek fan; would you have Sybok take your pain from you or, like Kirk, rather live with the pain because it makes you who you are?

    There’s that “Y”-shaped tree again.

    • waynehale says:

      Complex systems fail in complex ways but I maintain that one discerning person in the right place can see the warning signs and avoid the catastrophe. This is not fiction.

      • Dave H. says:

        No, this is not “fiction”, as you are wont to state when I make an attempt at a humorous metaphor.
        It takes one discerning person, and someone in a position of authority to believe that person to avert disaster.

        I’d love to tell you about the cracked stringers on the ETs for 133 and 135 someday. Someday. When you e-mail me and ask me.

        Like you once told me, this isn’t Hollywood. It doesn’t get any more real than this: how far would you go, and what would you risk to keep more names from going up on that wall in Florida?
        I put my job, my family, and my sanity on the line and it was worth it because there were no more accidents. My stuff worked.

        But it would have gone nowhere without people on the inside who could see that I was right.

  27. Bling Slade says:

    Everything that can be written about Columbia needs to be written. This will only help future engineers, managers, etc.

    NASA does incredible things every day and they should be recognized for all the miracles they perform. 133 successful flights of the Space Shuttle is a phenomenal feat, something no other country has come close to achieving. We will build even better and safer spacecraft in the future..and it will always be dangerous. Everyone who signs up knows this from day one.

  28. Patrick Kavanaugh says:

    Wayne, thanks for writing your recollections down. Perhaps catharsis is the reason that drives you to onward, but we all benefit from an open, honest assessment of the process. Many of us who worked on critical systems during the program had moments where we realized that only fickle fate had spared us from having to think of such things.

  29. convey you for sharing your thoughts , do your Best…

  30. Earl Richardson says:

    Wayne,

    Thank you for a very heartfelt post. You provide therepy to many people from the outside looking in who can only glimpse the magnitude and enormity of that effort.

    I had a similar but much more peripheral experience. On STS-51-L in January, 1986, I was at the Payload Operations Control Center for NASA’s 2nd Tracking Data Relay Satellite (TDRSS) Shuttle Mission, STS 51-L.

    A lot of organizational and management issues had surfaced between NASA and the Air Force following problems with the first mission of the TDRSS satellite on top an Air Force Inertial Upper Stage (IUS), STS-6. In response to those issues, the Air Force had tried to greatly strengthen its flight control team at Sunnyvale AFS (later Onizuka AFS) for the on-orbit portion of the IUS and TDRSS, even to the point of mimicing the real-time strucure of NASA’s Flight Control Team . So I was designated as Backroom Supervisor, overseeing many contractor engineers for that very complex payload.

    As you know, it was a convoluted customer relationship with Dod as NASA’s customer on the Shuttle, yet NASA also as DoDs’ customer since the TDRSS was on top the IUS. And of course that customer relationship impacted a lot of the management and technical issues.

    So NASA had set up a management team at Sunnyvale with John Cox as senior manager representing the customer. I worked closely with him as the events unfolded that morning.

    Early on the morning of the launch we had suspected some IUS issues, involving some lengthy discussion over the voice nets. As I recall, one person involved in those conversations was Ed Fendell, then a consultant in Sunnyvale. Those IUS concerns were cleared however, and the launch continued.

    But then, an hour later after the explosion and the loss of the crew of Challenger, the emotion where we were was deadening. And as I’m sure you know, it always seemed in that business that all the sims and rehearsals always prepared you for SOMETHING to be happening – this anomoly, that malfunction, or whatever. The spacecraft always had some velocity, and was always going somewhere. The one thing the sims and the training never prepared you for was for NOTHING to be happening. That was the worst feeling of all – and I remember that was how it felt that day.

    As you know Jay Greene was the Flight Director in Houston. To this day I remember some of his very poignant words over the voice net that day. The controllers never lost their professionalism – but just by listenening over the nets, you could easily sense their shock, and their grief. And that more than the rest of us, they had also lost close personal friends. I remember those of us in Sunnyvale in urgent conversations over the voice nets going over minute details of our previous IUS concerns, wondering if that might have beent a cause.

    As you know that was the first time a crew had ever been lost in flight, and we were all in a state of shock. It had appeared to us that Shuttle missions had become ‘routine’ to the public. So as we were were pouring over the data we had (not much) in that very sheltered environment in the Blue Cube at Sunnyvale, I remember thinking to myself (and perhaps somewhat naively in retrospect) “I wonder of the public is aware fo this yet.”

    And then a few hours later that day, leaving my position in the Blue Cube at Sunnyvale just going “outside” and overhearing a TV somewhere – and even without today’s technology of instant messaging, realizing how fully and deeply engrained that tragedy had already become in the nation’s psyche in just a few hours.

    As you know, space exploration is a huge endeavor with not only a technical involvement but also an emotional investment even if only a periphal one, by so many people. I believe your words are therapy for many people you’ll never know. Thank you – Earl Richardson

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