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.