After Ten Years: Death Never Takes a Holiday

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.”

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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28 Responses to After Ten Years: Death Never Takes a Holiday

  1. Tom says:

    It must be painful to relive all these memories by writing them down. Although I have no connection to the shuttle program whatsoever, I barely could hold back my tears when visiting the astronaut memorial at KSC. Just like now.. Thank you for sharing these memories and may they teach us a lesson.

  2. Beth Webber says:

    The reading gets toughter as you proceed. The writing must as well.

  3. Frank Ch. Eigler says:

    “‘You know, if there was any real damage done to the wing, there is nothing we can do about it.’ [...] Nobody, not even me, thought about a rescue mission. Why would we?”

    I wonder if this was an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If people presume there is nothing doable, then they won’t want to find out more about the severity of the damage, which (if known) could have lit a fire of urgency and maybe find something doable.

    • R. Feynman says:

      The fact that a possible need for a rescue mission never even occurred to anyone is so troubling that I have to question the intelligence and general competence of the entire staff. That is just unbelievable.

      • waynehale says:

        If the engineering analysis had indicated that critical damage was done, I am sure a rescue mission would have been examined. The real problem was the incorrect assessment that there was no problem. Why would you mount a rescue mission if there was no need for a rescue?

  4. spacebrat1 says:

    I think Linda’s conclusion was total human nature – I made it several paragraphs higher in this recounting… was it a blessing the Crew never knew and had to sit on days of fore-knowledge? Again thanks for this, it has inestimable value going forward…

  5. Andrew W says:

    A sad lesson in Human nature.

  6. Andrew W says:

    Were any astronauts brought into the loop? I’d assume they’d be more inclined to take the threat on a more personal (if that’s the right word) basis.

    • Mike Grusin says:

      Ron Dittemore said something after the accident that I’ve never forgotten; that if it’s your own life on the line that’s one thing, but when you’re responsible for the lives of your friends, you take that responsibility extremely seriously. I have zero doubt that this attitude was universal throughout the Shuttle program, and that if any of the available data and understanding indicated a viable threat, they would have stopped at nothing.

      • Andrew W says:

        “if it’s your own life on the line that’s one thing, but when you’re responsible for the lives of your friends, you take that responsibility extremely seriously.”

        I’m not buying that, people invariably protect their own lives, and those of their offspring, more than the lives of other people.

        Dittemore’s implied claim is at odds with just about all observation.

    • Dave H. says:

      An excellent question! Did ANYONE from the Astronaut Office ask questions or raise any concerns? I do not recall ever reading about that.

      • waynehale says:

        The crew office was well represented in mission control, in the MER, and at all the MMT meetings. There were any number of astronauts who heard the information.

      • Dave H. says:

        Interesting, Wayne. That’s the only word that describes this.
        Take us onward, Ghost of Spaceflight Future!

  7. Wayne

    Thanks for putting this up, it is tough, and the second guessing goes on for a life time. Lets let this be our learning experience for the future.

  8. Art says:

    “We couldn’t do anything about it anyway.” Then obviously, NASA is the wrong organization to be in the space business. I hope we learn from their lack of interest in the people they were supposed to support.

    • waynehale says:

      To put this in context, NASA has spent considerable time and effort into tile repair materials and techniques prior to the first shuttle flight. All those efforts through the early 1980’s were unsuccessful. The combined wisdom of the materials science community was that on orbit TPS repair was impossible. After the accident during the return to flight effort any number of knowledgeable people told Bill Parsons and I that On orbit TPS repair was impossible. Chris Kraft counselled us that it was a waste of time. Bonny Dunbar who was a TPS expert told us it was impossible. We spent millions of dollars and three years and the new smart guys found something that worked, but just barely. Don’t think you would been any smarted in January 2003 than anybody else was.

      • Dave H. says:

        And don’t forget that by January 2003 the data was in…there had been foam strikes on more missions than not and it had never caused a problem before.

  9. Rod Wallace says:

    We were all quick to label people and their opinions. I also wanted to get home for the weekend. But the statement Linda made was true. The discussions, analyses, and the lack of data did not change one thing. But waking up to pictures of Columbia breaking up over Texas changed NASA and me forever. That damn foam! Why did I not do more with the knowledge that I did have? While I promised myself that I would do everything I could do after Challenger to prevent another accident. I failed! The one thing we all knew was placed in the category of it was someone else’s problem. We lost foam on every mission. Shame on all of us.

    • Rod Wallace says:

      Wayne,
      Thanks for having a forum where I can vent some feelings that I carry around with me everyday. The guy below is right you should write a book.

  10. Jeff Goldader says:

    Mr. Hale, have you considered compiling these memoirs and publishing them? You could self-publish in the Kindle store, if nothing else. These are valuable lessons, and need to be available many years from now, no matter what happens to WordPress. And personally, it’s a real privilege to be able to see these events from your perspective. You have my very sincere thanks.

  11. Fredric Mushel says:

    My only comment is: Why during the Challenger accident investigation was the ET foam loss not addressed, as it appears there was tile damage due to foam loss from the ET from the earliest Shuttle flights. Obviously, after the Columbia accident there were areas of foam that were removed from the ET, such as the PAL ramps, and the foam on the forward strut bolts which held the forward strut to the ET. Apparently, as was proven in the last years of shuttle flights, the foam in those areas was never really needed. Why was the removal of such foam areas never seriously addressed in those many years between the loss of Challenger and Columbia?
    NASA has become, like many government agencies and corporations, a giant bureaucracy. It’s my feeling that if the NASA personnel of 1970 were on the job (the people who saved Apollo 13), there might have been a very aggressive attempt to save the Shuttle without just declaring, “there is nothing we can do about it.” Those earlier employees might have said, “Failure is not an option.”

    • waynehale says:

      “Failure is not an option” of course was never heard in the 1970’s. It was developed for the movie “Apollo 13″ much later.

      • Dave H. says:

        From http://www.searchquotes.com:

        Explanation by Jerry C. Bostick
        Flight Dynamics Officer (FDO) Apollo 13
        As far as the expression ‘Failure is not an option”, you are correct that Kranz never used that term. In preparation for the movie, the script writers, Al Reinart and Bill Broyles, came down to Clear Lake to interview me on “What are the people in Mission Control really like?” One of their questions was “Weren’t there times when everybody, or at least a few people, just panicked?” My answer was “No, when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution.” I immediately sensed that Bill Broyles wanted to leave and assumed that he was bored with the interview. Only months later did I learn that when they got in their car to leave, he started screaming, “That’s it! That’s the tag line for the whole movie, Failure is not an option. Now we just have to figure out who to have say it.” Of course, they gave it to the Kranz character, and the rest is history.

    • Rand Simberg says:

      Those earlier employees might have said, “Failure is not an option.”

      It seems unlikely, since they never said it at the time. That’s really not a very good management philosophy. It makes success very, almost unaffordably expensive.

  12. Fredric Mushel says:

    What I meant to say using the words “Failure is not an option” was that the NASA personnel of the 1970’s would not have “given up” so easily on the debris strike on Columbia’s wing.
    They would have probably investigated every single idea from all NASA personnel in order to 1) determine if there was actual damage to the leading edge of the wing (using all resources at the US government’s disposal, i.e., all government agencies). And, 2) if there was proof, and if they were not able to devise a way to fix the problem, would have ordered an immediate “power down” to conserve all consumables and launch a rescue mission. Better to do this than to shrug off the video data and past tile damage from ET foam debris strikes, than to just let the crew (and Columbia) take their chances.

    According to the NASA book, “Wings in Orbit” the actual thickness of the RCC material was only 0.2 inches thick. I don’t know how thick the RCC panel itself is, nor what the astronauts onboard Columbia could actually do to “plug up the hole.” But I do not believe the NASA personal of the Apollo era would have given up so easily as the 2003 NASA management team did.

    As for the Challenger accident, it is too bad that Roger Boisjoly didn’t leak the o-ring info to the Press. Maybe that might have prevented the loss of Challenger. He obviously did not because he didn’t want to lose his job (and perhaps for other reasons), but after the accident when he told the truth to the Rogers Commission, he was ostracized from Morton Thiokol anyway. In some (rare) cases it may be best to “leak” such information, especially if one feels they are right in their assertions in order to save human lives (of very special people).

    • Phil says:

      Fredric Mushel – “.. the NASA personnel of the 1970′s would not have “given up” so easily on the debris strike on Columbia’s wing.”

      Don’t be so confident about that assumption. Foam loss on the shuttle was seen and became acceptable while Gerry Griffen was the head of the Johnson Space Center and Gene Kranz was the head of flight operations.

      Remember that the entire Mercury through Apollo programs (including the Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz missions) was less missions than the first decade of shuttle missions. Had Apollo continued for another decade it’s naive to believe that the 100% success rate would have been guaranteed to continue.

  13. Mark says:

    Trying to look back at the loss of Columbia through an engineer’s eyes, I’ve always been struck by how there was really no good option once the crew was in orbit, and how easy it would have been to dismiss the foamstrike as being “just like the rest.” It’s easy to imagine myself making the same decisions the entire shuttle team did during STS-107. This was a very different situation from Challenger, where managers decided to violate flight rules to meet an arbitrary schedule.

    The “patch the wing” option is never talked about publicly in great detail. Did the studies ever show how it could have made the problem worse? It would appear at first glance to possibly buy the orbiter a little time, but likely not enough to reach the low speeds and altitudes necessary to bail out. Most likely the ice bag would vaporize pretty quickly, and the metal scraps would be rattling around inside the wing. But I also feel that the CAIB report tended to gloss over the difficulties of the Atlantis rescue mission, which had presumably never been practiced up to that point.

    As a nit-pick, STS-42 did fly during the anniversary of the Challenger loss. Still, it appears that NASA had, intentionally or not, tried to avoid that date for shuttle missions.so

    • waynehale says:

      If memory serves me, STS-42 was during the time that George Abbey was “exiled” to HQ because of some senior management tiff. That would explain the exception to the rule of not flying over the Jan 27-28 period.

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