After Ten Years: Picking Up the Pieces

Meeting the CAIB at KSC

Meeting the CAIB at KSC

Starting the new job at KSC, I had set out from my home in Houston on January 30th, with the expectation of spending about three weeks on the job before getting a weekend back in Houston.  Among the most surreal events the first week in February was flying into Ellington Field in the KSC management aircraft.  The mood was somber, the suits were equally dark.  No small talk or chit-chat on that flight, or even the continuous NASA management meeting that generally dominated.  When we landed, it was even stranger.  We were greeted by old astronaut friends, mostly unrecognizable in their full dress military uniforms – something we never saw.  I can’t really say we were greeted everyone was mostly silent and numb. 

For the second time in my NASA career, I found myself on a little rise of grass in the corner between building 16 and building 12.  President Reagan had spoken facing southeast standing right in front of building 16.   President Bush spoke facing southwest standing right in front of building 12.  The trees were taller in 2003 than they had been in 1986.  We “visiting” dignitaries from the other NASA centers were herded into a triangle of land surrounded with fake 3 foot high white picket fence to separate us from the JSC people.  It was strange to shake hands or try to give a hug across that strange fence.  Immediately after the ceremony we were herded back into the bus to Ellington for the flight to KSC.  Never got home, never saw my family; it was the strangest day of all.

Back at KSC, I accompanied my office staff to a windswept memorial service on the SLF runway itself.  Bob Crippen spoke movingly about Columbia and the loss of the vehicle as if she were a living being.  It struck me that at JSC the memorial service had been about the crew and at KSC it was about the orbiter.  Natural, I suppose, the crew being at home in Texas, the orbiter being ‘at home’ in Florida.  Somebody said later it was a tragedy at both centers:  at KSC it was as if their home had burned down, at JSC it was a death in the family; both tragedies, just different.

As a senior manager, it was out of the question for me to go to East Texas to pick up pieces; but the KSC work force was well represented there.  KSC Center Director Roy Bridges decided that his management team – which included me – should go visit the troops in the field and give them moral support and encouragement.  So after a few more days we headed out on the KSC management aircraft again.  First stop was Angelina County Airport just south of Lufkin, Texas.  As we disembarked from the aircraft, something struck me as odd about the pilot and copilot of the airplane.  Sometime later, when I talked with the air crews from JSC, they reported that Angelina airport was not usable by the Gulfstream II aircraft; the runway was too short.  JSC safety prevented them from flying there.  Turns out that Roy, veteran shuttle commander and long time pilot, had signed a waiver to allow the KSC plane to land there.  He felt the risk was acceptable. 

No wonder the pilots had put on the brakes so hard.

I found myself in a car with Ed Mango driving in the dark up to Nacogdoches where we inspected a hanger full of pieces.  The SILTS pod from the top of Columbia’s tail was there, and other pieces that I remembered.  Somehow we made it back to Lufkin for another surreal meal at the Outback steakhouse; Dave King had been put in charge of the recovery logistics and he shared the challenges he had faced with us over a meal.  Next day we spent in the Lufkin civic center talking with the FEMA, Forest Service, Red Cross and all the other agencies that were represented there.  All my old colleagues from the astronaut office were hollow eyed and silent as they were spearheading the recovery of the human remains.

We flew to Barksdale AFB at Shreveport where some of the logistics operations were located.  They greeted our plane with all the pomp and circumstance that a retired Lieutenant General deserved; something we were not used to. 

As we flew back to Florida, I realized that I was not going to get to walk any of the fields looking for parts.  Instead, I was assigned to meet and assist the Columbia Accident Investigation board members as they arrived in Florida.  We gave them briefings and tours, took them to the VAB and showed them Atlantis all stacked up and ready to roll out.  There was a long series of briefings at the conference room in the Saturn V display building, not about the Saturn V but about KSC shuttle launch processes and the like. 

And then there was the RLV hanger.  An organization called Space Florida – quasi independent quasi state funded – had build an large hanger at the SLF to attract future ‘reusable launch vehicles’.  We took over the hanger to reconstruct the parts.  I was over there a lot.  Every morning the planes flew in from JSC or HQ or wherever with experts who combed over the wreckage, searching for clues, and every evening they flew home.  I met, greeted, and worked with many old colleagues almost every day.  There were other meetings and telecons and the press of business back in the office to attend to, but I went to the RLV hanger every day.  Many days this visit was after the regular work day when there was a small shift of KSC folks sorting the pieces and I could wander around the hanger on my own, pondering every piece in silence.  And then I had a long half hour drive back down to my empty condo in Cape Canaveral to think about what I’d seen.

The experts were in a quandary, but the key evidence came from a special recorder that only Columbia had.  It was found mostly undamaged, sitting on a little rise in a field in East Texas.  Playing back the telemetry tapes told the story, everything else just filled in around the main points. 

We still didn’t believe that foam could have broken the wing leading edge until they did a test, fired a hunk of foam at a mockup of the wing, and proved it.  Then there was no doubt.

Ron Dittemore announced his retirement and a new Program Manager was named, Bill Parsons.  I knew Parsons from his days as deputy Center Director at JSC and when I got a chance to talk with him, asked to come home to Houston.  The job in Florida hadn’t worked out quite how I had envisioned it and I was ready to leave. 

Flying home for the July 4 holiday, I changed planes in New Orleans.  There was a recorded message when I turned on my cell phone in the terminal.  Bill Parsons wanted me to come back to Houston – to be his deputy.  I was floored.

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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13 Responses to After Ten Years: Picking Up the Pieces

  1. These posts have all been tough to read, but this was the toughest; an unflinching account. You’re a man of many talents and this post demonstrates forcefully that writing is high among them.

  2. Charley S McCue says:

    I remember photos of the hanger and the debris. The stark reality of most of the right wing recovered versus the gaps in the left wing. The frame that held the recovered RCC from the left wing and the missing sections.

    Then there was a report that talked about how melted metal from the left wing was found deposited on recovered pieces. By comparing each layer of metal, they could tell when and where the heat entered the wing. The data recorder was found and the data recovered that gave a when and where of sensors destroyed inside the wing as the heat built. Also, the photos and the videos of glowing pieces leaving Columbia as early as the California coast.

    But, even after all the clues, visual and digital, pointed to a breach in the RCC, how surprised many were when the foam test broke the RCC. In the video, you can hear the gasps of surprise from onlookers. It struck me how it seemed to match the launch videos, an intact piece of foam striking the orbiter and a shower of foam bits after the strike. The test video shows the foam staying in large pieces after striking the RCC until the RCC broke and the jagged edges of RCC disintegrates the foam to create the spray of bits.

    Thank you sir for sharing. It does help.

    • waynehale says:

      Hard to imagine now but we were all really surprised by the damage demonstrated in that test.

    • David Seidel says:

      Charley’s second paragraph highlights something that, although not forgotten, bears restating, namely the extraordinary and exceptional technical forensic work of the NASA teams, the CAIB and others. The recovery of the OEX was phenomenal good fortune and allowed the fixing of time and place inside the left wing. The analysis of debris, like the spray of aluminum (and then its implications for the loss of communications), must make this one of the most exquisite reconstructions of a complex technological disaster ever. All of you that recovered parts, conducted analysis (like Scott Hubbard’s foam team), and are now archiving pieces for future examination are heros in this story too.

  3. Yusef Johnson says:

    Walking through east Texas for debris was both sad and fun at the same time. I met folks from all over the Agency and had some fun times in Palestine. I found that while in a hick town, if a Black man sings country songs during karaoke, he may not have to pay for a drink for the rest of his time there. I was chased by a bull. I have an interesting story of how a very angry redneck man came out of his house with a shotgun yelling “Where’s the NASA man?” only to see it was me. Not what he was expecting…lol. I even lost a bet over one piece that I found, out in the middle of a grove of pines, I swore it was from Columbia. But, as a kid from New York City, I had no idea what a carburetor from a Briggs & Stratton lawn mower looked like. That was an expensive round of beer…..

    It just would amaze me how we would walk for a couple of hours and find nothing, and then all of a sudden, bam, a whole field of debris. It was as amazing to find tiles that looked as if nothing happened at all. And one time, in the middle of a field of yellow wildflowers, we found pieces of the payload bay doors. The scene was surreal….

    I hope to never have to do that again….

  4. Ray Bigonesse says:

    I had similar experiences to that of Yusef, walking the fields, but there wasn’t much partying in the Corsicana base camp. It was a surreal month.

  5. spacebrat1 says:

    so not easy but thank you…

  6. Dave H. says:

    My thoughts and prayers are with those involved in the recovery efforts.

  7. Ann S. says:

    Thanks for sharing this story. It’s an important part of this history.

  8. Dave H. says:

    I found the following on CNN.com a few moments ago and thought that it belonged here as well…

    AttyVette • 3 hours ago
    I was fortunate enough to help in the search and recovery mission for Columbia in Hemphill, Texas. The team I was on consisted of myself, a TDPS trooper and a Forest Ranger with a GPS device. It was very sobering for all of us finding debris from the Columbia space shuttle..from seeing the vacuum sealed packages of food products you knew the astronauts ate their meals from to bits and pieces of the shuttle itself-( a hugh metal hatch, stainless steel containers with only God knows what types of experiments still in them, the space shuttle nose, and various other types of debris that we took pictures of and wrote down the shuttle’s gps coordinates for each located item.). We went to a field where someone had already erected a cross where an astronauts remains had been found and removed. I felt an overwheming sense of loss and sorrow at that location so I prayed at the spot where this astronaut remains had been found and took a picture of the cross. I will never forget those three days I spent in the woods locating and photographing all that remained of the space shuttle Columbia. Thank you brave men and women of our nation who gave their lives exploring space for our country and the world as a whole.

  9. Darin Bolton says:

    If the severity of the RCC breach had been confirmed, what on-board materials could they have potentially used to fill the gap? Would it have been possible, during an eva, to remove thermal blankets from the topside of the vehicle (in an area that was known not to get much heat during re-entry) and stuff those into the hole?

    • waynehale says:

      That would have been technically possible and we might even have tried it. However, the wing leading edge environment exceeded 3,000 deg F for approximately 30 minutes; those top side FRSI blankets were only good to about 1200 deg F and would have not prevented critical damage. With a very rough front surface, increased heating would have resulted and earlier wing failure might have occurred. There was no material onboard Columbia that could have successfully plugged the hole for re-entry.

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