During the accident investigation there were several efforts to determine what might have been done to save Columbia and her crew. None of the concepts to plug the hole in the wing would have worked; most would have caused even earlier failure of the structure as the incredible heat of reentry vaporized the plug. The only possible scenario – and it was a slim one – was to immediately discover the hole by a never previously attempted complex spacewalk, immediately power down Columbia to survival levels to stretch the life support consumables, and scramble Atlantis, already stacked for launch in the VAB, with an incredibly complex formation flying and crew vacuum transfer. It would have made Apollo 13 look like a cakewalk. And the key was early detection and immediate radical action.
Whether or not we might have been able to pull that off is problematic; but psychologically we were not ready to take such radical action and as it turns out, we never had the chance to find out.
The launch had appeared to be perfectly normal. After the usual ceremonies, all the senior visiting managers left, while I stayed behind with the KSC folks. I had plane reservations to go home to Houston for the long MLK holiday weekend and I was anxious to get both some training done at KSC before I left, and to take care of things at home since I would be spending increasingly longer periods of time at KSC.
Friday morning was the first Mission Management Team teleconference. All the senior managers and engineers in the shuttle program at the various centers and NASA HQ tied in to a voice conference to hear the status of the mission and possibly to make decisions about its conduct. Nobody expected anything significant; after all this was not a complex ISS assembly mission with a lot of spacewalks; this was a straightforward science mission with many zero gravity experiments in the SpaceHab module in the payload bay. The biggest management decisions expected were to decide experiment priorities between quarrelling principle investigators whose experiments invariably ran into problems.
The MMT started promptly at 8 AM Houston time, and we had a good crowd in the Launch Integration conference room on the third floor of the KSC Headquarters meeting where it was a more civilized 9 AM Eastern time. All the element managers reported in on the quick look evaluations of the engineering data from the launch, all was ‘nominal’. The Mission Operations team (my old buddies) gave a quick status of mission events past and forecast; and again everything was normal. The meeting wasn’t very long, much less than an hour. It was announced that due to the three day federal holiday weekend, the MMT would not meet until next Tuesday, January 21.
Bob Page worked in the Shuttle Launch Integration office at KSC as the Head of the InterCenter Photo/TV Working Group. Among his most important duties was to collect all the findings from the launch videos and distribute them to the engineers. At that time, most of the data came from the film cameras. All those films had been collected within a couple of hours after launch, rushed down to a lab in Miami, developed and sent back overnight with copies going to the three engineering review teams at KSC, MSFC, and JSC. They had started looking at those films as soon as they arrived early Friday morning.
Bob’s office was just a few doors down the hall from mine. Not long after the MMT had ended, Bob burst into my office with the news that there had been a debris strike on Columbia’s left wing during launch. He was understandably upset that one of the key cameras had been so out of focus that its imagery was useless. But all three review teams had agreed that a significant piece of debris had been lifted off the External Tank as the shuttle stack accelerated through Mach 2.5 and that debris had hit the left wing near the front and exploded into a cloud of dust. Most probably insulating foam, but the picture could review few other details.
Immediately we called Linda Ham in Houston. As chairman of the MMT, she was the senior person to be notified in an event like this. Linda picked up the phone in her JSC office and shortly put us on the speaker so that Ron Dittemore, whose office was next to hers, could join in. Bob described what was seen and asked if they knew of any way to get more data. Since we did not have a robot arm on Columbia for that flight, there was no way to look at the front or underside of the wing. No one mentioned EVA and if one of us had thought of it, the likelihood is that we would not have agreed to take that risk – spacewalks always involve risk – on such slim grounds.
We agreed that Bob would extract a video clip of the strike and email it that day to all parties who might be concerned. After we hung up the phone, I felt I had done my duty by informing program management and ensuring the data would be distributed to the engineers who could perform the analysis. Bob pressed me to discuss options about how to get more data about possible damage to the wing; those options were severely limited.
Sometime after Bob left my office, Linda and I had another short phone conversation in which she told me that Bob was an excitable guy. I had to agree; he was pretty excited. But it seemed to be justified, rather than a reason to downplay the concern. Then she delivered the sentence that would define the rest of the tragedy; a sentence that was repeated as common wisdom by almost every senior manager that I talked to over the next two weeks: ‘You know, if there was any real damage done to the wing, there is nothing we can do about it.’ As unsettling as that was, I had to agree; going back to the first shuttle flight it had been well known that there was no way to repair the heat shield in flight. Nobody, not even me, thought about a rescue mission. Why would we?
So I caught my plane back to Houston that afternoon, the MMT did not meet all weekend and I had no reason to go over to mission control.
Saturday evening was a scout leader awards dinner meeting. I had worked with the Boy Scouts for almost a decade at that point, my son having long ago graduated and gone off to college, I had served in various leadership positions ending up as District Chairman. The council was reorganizing and our district was being renamed and geographically changed. Most of the leaders I had worked with for years had sons that likewise had grown out of the scouting program. It seemed like a good time for many of us to hang up our uniforms for the last time. So we had a nice dinner and awards assembly and said our goodbyes. I told people that I wouldn’t have missed that for the world.
It was the last meeting of the leadership of the Challenger District. Yes, named after the shuttle lost 17 years earlier. The name Challenger was not being reused by the scout council. It made me sad to think that the memory of Dick Scobee and his crew was fading away.
This would be the first shuttle flight since we lost Challenger to fly over the anniversary date of that loss.
That Saturday evening on the late TV news, I saw the very video clip that Bob Page had emailed out to NASA management and engineers. It was broadcast with the anchorman commenting “NASA says there is nothing to worry about.”