First the official disclaimer: I can neither confirm nor deny that other national agencies might or might not have had capabilities that could have helped NASA during the last flight of Columbia.
The fact of the matter is that in January 2003 I had never had a security clearance of the type to let me know anything about such matters. We had all had low level clearances during the DoD flights of the late 80’s, which were allowed to lapse. Some Flight Directors had low level security clearances but these were almost never used. There were rumors, innuendos, lies, and tall tales told during the post flight parties or other occasions about what might be out there, but I never actually saw any evidence of anything. That is where things stood in January 2003.
After the MLK holiday weekend, I traveled back to Florida, to continue my preparation to be the Space Shuttle Program Launch Integration Manager fully trained and in place for February 1. I was to spend that short work week in Florida, and the next week closing out any lingering assignments in Houston before driving back to Florida to start my permanent assignment Jan 30 & 31.
As I recall we had two MMTs that week; Tuesday morning and Friday morning. I participated by teleconference from KSC.
It was midmorning Wednesday January 22 when Lambert Austin called me. Lambert was the Manager of the Space Shuttle Systems Integration office, a senior position in the program based at JSC. The conversation was pretty short; Lambert said that several of his people wanted more information about possible damage to the left wing of Columbia. He thought that the DoD might have some ways to get that information. Would I please contact the DoD and see what they could do? I told him that I would do what I could.
It was much much later before I questioned why Lambert – who certainly had the authority and contacts – did not make the request himself. His position in the organization was the same level as the position that I was in training to take over – he was official and I wasn’t yet there.
First I called Dave Phillips down at Patrick AFB. He was the NASA/DoD liaison for all things related to launch, range safety, search and rescue, etc. I described the situation to him and asked him to pass along the request to do whatever they could to get us more information.
About an hour later, I realized that the right way to make such a request was through the Mission Control Center in Houston. So I called the MOD console and talked with my old colleague Phil Engelauf. Some weeks later we talked about that call; my intention was to tell Phil to make the request; Phil heard that I was asking his opinion about making such a request. As it turns out Phil did not pass the request along. I thought he did.
Later in the afternoon, Linda Ham called me. I don’t know how the news traveled to her, but she heard that I had initiated a request for help and information from the DoD. She told me that she had checked and ‘nobody’ had a ‘requirement’ for more information (see my previous post on ‘The Tyranny of Requirements’). She asked me to terminate the request for information.
Much later on, I found out that Linda had contacted three fairly senior managers and none of those three had any interest in more information. Where and how the desire for more information died in the various management chains is probably a long story. During the investigation many engineers said they had requested more information but those requests never made it to the top.
After I hung up the phone with Linda, I found that I was mad. I don’t like to be overruled (who does) but this was unusual. I was very tempted to ignore her direction and let the requests stand. I went out of the office into the third floor hall at KSC HQ and paced up and down for several minutes. Finally I reluctantly decided to follow her instructions. I went back into my office, called Dave Phillips first, then Phil Engelauf. I told them to stand down on any request for more information from the DoD.
As I explained in my last post, it wouldn’t have made any difference. If there were some magical way to find out Columbia’s status, a week after launch it was too late. The best case scenario – which had virtually no chance of succeeding – would only have worked if action had been taken on the second or third day of the flight; by the sixth day it was too late.
For the rest of the week, whenever I was in my office, I listened to the air-to-ground and flight director squawk boxes. Lead Flight Director Kelly Beck was leading a very successful and complex science mission. Rick Husband and the entire crew seemed to handling everything in stride.
Kelly Beck had been the best Ascent Guidance and Procedures officer I ever had on any of my 27 ascent teams. She knew all the emergency and contingency procedures to save the crew during an ascent abort, no matter how many problems the sim team put on us. When it was time to select new flight directors I encouraged her to apply and then lobbied for her selection. After she was certified as an orbit Flight Director, I asked if she wanted to enter the Ascent/Entry Flight Director training. To my surprise she turned me down; the responsibility was too great she said; too much chance of losing a crew during those phases. STS-107 was her first assignment as lead orbit flight director and she got as close to the crew as any flight director in the office.
At the end of the week I flew back to Houston. No MMTs were held that next weekend either. I would go to my first MMT meeting in person at JSC on Monday January 27. Even though we did not know it, all options were behind us at that point.
Years later, a senior NASA official told me that after the accident, I was picked to be the new Deputy Program Manager because I asked for help during the mission. If true, that is the saddest comment of all. A handful of phone calls one Wednesday in January, started, then stopped. Too little, too late.