Prior to the Challenger accident, the theory was that riding on the space shuttle was like riding on a modern jet airliner; passengers are not provided with parachutes and pressure suits. Challenger changed all that. With pressure suits, parachutes, and a pyrotechnically jettisonable hatch, a crew just might have a chance to survive that type of accident. The crew module was a double structure, pressure vessel within the aerodynamic outer airframe, so if any part of the orbiter was to survive, the crew module was it. We added life rafts, survival gear, and satellite beacons on each crew member. At 73 seconds into flight, Challenger broke apart at about Mach 2 and the pieces coasted to nearly 65,000 feet.
As time went on, we became much more concerned with a crew bailout in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, particularly at the higher latitudes where an ISS launch would take them. Remember the movie Titanic; the extreme cold water was what killed most of the people. The pressure suit we used after Challenger was derived from an SR-71 ejection suit and was not very effective in retaining heat; we needed a survival suit. The Advanced Crew Escape Suit – ACES – was developed and was a great improvement. Bobbing in the icy north Atlantic waiting for rescue, someone in the ACES could likely survive the 8 to 12 hours it would take the rescue forces to arrive in the worst case. But the ACES suit had a drawback; unlike the older SR-71 suit the gloves had to be worn to maintain pressure. Wearing gloves was a real drawback, dexterity was severely impacted. Most crew members carried their glove rather than wear them, planning to zip them on in case of impending trouble.
And both suits were pressurized with pure oxygen. In a vacuum, wearing a pressure suit at 4 or 5 psi will keep you alive. But with the helmet visor closed and the cabin under normal pressure, the oxygen bleeding out of the suit will increase the O2 level to the point of a fire hazard in just a few minutes. So the crew would be visors down only for the first two minutes of launch and for the last two minutes of entry (fearing for bird strikes). During the bulk of the entry period – deorbit burn to landing was over an hour – the protocol was for the visors to be up and the O2 system to be off.
The last week of Columbia’s flight I got ready for my (semi) permanent move to Florida. Feb. 1 was a Saturday and the planned landing day for Columbia. I loaded clothes and other necessities into my old suburban, kissed my wife goodbye (with the promise that I would be home for a weekend in about three weeks) and headed down I-10 from Houston toward Florida. Normally this trip would take about a day and a half, but as I entered the Florida panhandle, the engine started overheating. The water pump was failing and I had failed to pack my toolbox. I coasted into Crestview and checked into a hotel. First thing in the morning on Friday January 31, I managed to get the truck into a mechanics shop and before noon I was on my way with a new water pump. But that make it after 6 when I rolled into Cocoa Beach. The real estate people had left the keys to my condo taped on their door, so I was able to get in, unload, grab a bite to eat, and hit the sack early because Saturday was going to be a big day. It would be the first time I could witness a shuttle landing in person – after all those times watching from Mission Control.
Very early Saturday morning I was up, shaved, dressed, breakfasted, and headed out the KSC HQ building. There I met Mike Wetmore the director of Shuttle Processing and some of his staff. We took a government van from there up to the Launch Control Center. We met Mike Leinbach at his console in the Firing Room, plugged in headsets and listened as my old colleague LeRoy Cain fought with the weather forecast. There was a real chance of low clouds; the lowest ceiling the flight rules would allow was 8,000 feet so the commander would have a good visual approach to the shuttle runway. The forecaster kept putting in the chance of ceiling at 3,000 feet. Not good. Passing the time, I told the small assembled group in the Firing Room that LeRoy would never give a GO for deorbit burn; he would probably wave off one orbit when the forecaster said the low clouds would be gone. But LeRoy surprised me and gave a GO for deorbit burn on time.
Much later, while the debris recovery effort was going on in East Texas, the trajectory analysts put together an estimated plot of where the Columbia pieces would have come down for a 1 rev late deorbit. The toe of the ellipse – where the heaviest pieces would come down – cut across the southwestern suburbs of Houston. My home – my wife – would have been in the target zone where the 2 ton steel main engine combustion chambers would have hit the ground at supersonic speeds. JSC would have been at ground zero for the debris; the MCC would likely have been struck. That is a scenario that is just too implausible for words.
After the deorbit burn was completed, and the good ship and crew were committed to re-entry, our little party trundled down to the parking lot and rode the van over to the midfield parksite which is where the bleachers for the VIPs are located.
It was a party atmosphere there. I was a little disoriented because there was none of the information I was used to watching in the MCC during a shuttle re-entry. There was just a loudspeaker with the PAO commentary and the crew Air-to-ground radio transmissions. The bleachers were covered with folks I knew; everybody from center directors, to other astronauts, to KSC workers of all types; I had a very nice chat with the NASA Associate Administrator for Human Space Flight, and with the KSC center director. In the middle of the conversation, a couple of the astronauts in their signature blue flight coveralls come over. They were crew family escorts and were watching the crew’s children playing tag in between the bleacher stands.
I took note of the gathering low level clouds and wondered if the weather was going to turn out to be a flight rule violation after all.
I briefly wondered if Rick Husband would look out his left window and see his hometown of Amarillo or if Willie McCool would look out his right window and see his hometown of Lubbock; that was what I remembered of the groundtrack.
I totally lost perspective of what was going on with the shuttle. Then somebody asked “Isn’t this a long time for the crew to be out of communications?” I looked at the clock counting down to touchdown time and with a chill realized that the shuttle should be coming over the west coast of Florida and there was no way that those calls from Capcom could be going unanswered.
Then cell phones began ringing in the crowd.
Shock was setting in as we ran back to the van and raced back to the Launch Control Center to find out what was going on. The TV sets with national news channels showing pictures from the skies over Dallas told the story.
After a few minutes, I pulled out my phone list and called the MCC, the Landing Support Officer was Marty Linde. We had trained for a thousand terrible scenarios together. Even though I was breaking protocol by calling, I couldn’t help it. Surely, I thought, that double walled crew compartment had held together and those pressure suits would have protected the crew until they could bail out of the wreckage. “Marty,” I asked “have the [crew emergency] satellite beacons been detected?” His response: “No”
That is when I really knew.
Months later, my presence was requested at a full debriefing by the forensic pathologists. I hate those cop shows where they go into the gleaming lab rooms and discuss exactly how some murder victim died. This was not like that. The subjects of this clinical discussion were my friends and co-workers. It’s hard to be objective when you listen to how your friends died. The full report was over three hours. In detail the doctors went over all the results. You really don’t want to know. Nobody had a pressure suit that was inflated so they probably lost consciousness in 15 seconds and were clinically dead in minutes. That is probably the best that could have happened because, well, you don’t want to know what happened after that.
Vehicle breakup at 210,000 feet going Mach 15 is much much worse than anything we had ever planned for.
Sue Pinch who managed my office’s support staff showed up with the Contingency Action Plan. That book had everything written down, a good thing. Pushing through the fog of shock, it took everything to concentrate on what was written to do; nobody could have worked from memory. I remember being in a conference room with Sean O’Keefe, the administrator, and the agency chief counsel Paul Pastorak as they called the White House to explain what had happened.
Sue stayed at my elbow all day. Somehow as the day went on I found myself in the conference room on the first floor of the LCC building briefing the recovery team – what would be the debris recovery team – on what to expect in East Texas in February. Damp cold, near freezing with precipitation likely – pack warm clothes; friendly people; country of fields interspersed with pine forests and prickly thick brush. Most of the KSC team had never been there. We saw them off at the Shuttle Landing Facility well after dark.
It was late when I trundled back to the condominium near Port Canaveral that I had left so excitedly early that morning. I called my wife for the first time that day. It had been a very long day I told her.
My first day on the new job wasn’t at all what I expected.