After Ten Years: The Moment of Truth

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.


Crew Family bleachers at the SLF Midfield Park Site

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.

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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39 Responses to After Ten Years: The Moment of Truth

  1. Ed W. says:

    I was there that Saturday morning at the midfield landing site as well. I was assigned as an escort for a bus full of extended family members of the crew. Our procedures called for getting the families out of sight of the media immediately and getting them to the training auditorium at KSC. The bus ride from the SLF to the auditorium is when everyone’s cell phones started ringing as CNN began showing the images over Texas. That was a very, very difficult time. I was with the Columbia crew members grandparents, siblings, and invited friends as they began to receive the news on that bus. I don’t ever want an astronaut crew family to ever have to go through that again.

  2. Mike says:

    Thank you Wane for these memories. I’ve been reading with fascination the past few weeks, but I’ll be honest, it’s like watching a car crash in slow motion. You know what’s coming, but there is nothing you can do. Thanks again, perhaps we can all learn something from past mistakes.

    • Roger says:

      I have one question . You use the term in the “Flying a Mature Vehicle – Or Not, “The Monte Carlo Run”. What is or was the Monte Carlo Run.

      I have learnt so much from your blog. Many thanks
      Thanks in anticipation


  3. charlie barber says:

    Good evening Wayne…

    Quick question; do new flight controllers in any way review the Apollo-1, Challenger and Columbia accident histories for historical and lessons learned perspectives as part of their training activities?

    Thanks in advance.


    • waynehale says:

      Yes they do. At least they did at the time I was retiring from NASA.

      • Mike says:

        Absolutely still covered. The ‘boot camp’ flow (Training Academy) we give to new flight controllers and instructors have at least four independent lessons that cover some of the lessons learned or directly reinforce the serious nature of our work, including reviewing the columbia videos and timelines. In another lesson I teach during the follow on instructor boot camp flow I blutly stress the opportunities our newer instructors have for identifying and helping avoid these traps in the training they give the crews and flight controllers.

        Will this all work? Will we be perfect? History and human nature would suggest that some day we’ll likely stumble and find ourselves back in a very bad day when the truth catches back up with us. But it is our job to remain vigilent and do our best to keep that day from happening on our watch. When we’ve failed it was our friends and families that paid the price. We owe those who rely on us to protect them our absolute best to learn from history and do better.

    • Yusef Johnson says:

      During the first few weeks, we all attended what was called back then ‘Phase 1 training’. For a couple of days, folks like Wayne, Gene Kranz, and others would talk to the new blood and reminded us of just how serious this business is. I think they still do that training, but not as large in scope.

  4. Dave Ross says:

    Wayne, thank you for sharing your experience. I know it can’t be easy to relive everything.

  5. jabtano says:

    Fascinating read Wayne…

  6. Phil says:

    Everything you said about the landing ellipse for the one orbit delay debris is true. However, people forget one very important thing about the Columbia accident – people are small.

    The intense search for debris resulted in 15 pieces per square mile – that’s not very much. It’s a tribute to the dedication of the search teams that they found so much.

    While the population density of the one orbit late region where the debris would have fallen is greater than what actually happened it isn’t significantly different based on the vast area (240 x 10 miles).

    Statistically the odds of anybody being hit by debris from Columbia was fairly low. But it would have been truly ironic if the debris footprint overlapped the Houston area.

  7. Kari Fluegel says:

    Wayne — I vividly remember seeing you and speaking with you at the SLF that morning (a friendly face from my MCC past). It is a day that affected me deeply as I know it did everyone involved in the Shuttle program. Thanks for sharing your perspective.
    Best wishes

  8. Just curious how the “even if the wing was damaged, we couldn’t do anything about it” considerations from a week earlier manifested themselves during the landing. Did y’all put that possibility out of your minds? Did the controllers watching the early trim/heat/sensor anomalies recognize and dread what was likely to come?

    • Dave H. says:


      When you read the timeline transcript you learn that as the instrumentation began failing the controllers and INCO folks were searching for a pattern, a commonality, ANYTHING that could credibly explain why all of these indications were failing…and more importantly, HOW they were failing. Everything was going “offscale low”, indicating either sensor failure or wiring failure. You can literally follow the plama’s deadly path from the wing spar into the left wheel well.

      It HAD to be an instrumentation failure…the only other reason was unthinkable.

      Now…if someone had put it together early enough, could Columbia’s trajectory have been altered to reduce the heating effects? I’m thinking that instead of the series of left-right banks used to scrub off heat perhaps a large, left-hand cylindrical descent with a landing at DFW, IAH, or White Sands at the end.

      • waynehale says:

        The re-entry heating is so intense that there was no bank angle or other attitude change that could be made that would have prevented structural burn through and failure of the left wing or even significantly delayed that.

      • Dave H. says:

        You’re absolutely correct, and here’s why:
        One, by the time the sensors started failing the plasma had breached the wing spar and was feasting on soft aluminum, and two, there’s just no way to get the port side temperature below the melting point of aluminum.
        Bottom line, by the time the sensors began to fail that horse was not only out of the barn but was halfway to the county line!

    • Dave H. says:

      They had six minutes from loss of the first sensor to loss of communication. Tough to convince anyone of a serious problem and develop an alternate plan in that amount of time.

  9. Mark says:

    Thanks again for this series of memoirs about Columbia, which affected us all on some personal level.

    Based on the current state-of-the-art for escape systems, what can we realistically expect for an escape / survivability system on a next-gen spacecraft? There have been some pretty extreme bailouts before, such as 70kft and nearly Mach 3 from an SR-71, or the recent supersonic skydive by Felix Baumgartner, but they’re still child’s play compared to a hypersonic breakup at >200kft. Perhaps Challenger could have been survivable if the crew had pressure suits with individual parachutes, and if there was a way to stabilize the crew module so the crew could cleanly bail out. (Parachutes on the crew module might be more effective, but with a weight penalty.)

    I suppose that future crew modules could be constructed from materials with better resistance to heat, like titanium or inconel, but there’d have to be some tradeoff between the level of thermal protection and the total crew module mass.

    • Calli Arcale says:

      I recall reading discussions among NASA insiders years ago — you do gradually get to where it seems you’re packing an entire spare reentry system, and at that point it’s gotten so wildly impractical that . . . well, you can’t possibly protect against all failure modes, and so eventually you do have to draw a line. And then pray you picked the right spot.

  10. Beth Webber says:

    Thank you, Wayne. The immediacy of this feels like yesterday, not 10 years ago.

    • Jodie Peeler says:

      Seconded. I can recall exactly two moments in my life — and they were Challenger, when I was in seventh grade, and Columbia, as an adult — when my reaction to hearing the news was “do I cry, or do I run outside and throw up?”

      Wayne, you continue to have my thanks for setting all this down for posterity. I know it cannot be easy, but please know it is very much appreciated.

  11. Dave H. says:


    I know that this has to be perhaps the most difficult thing you’ve had to do in years. I’ve read “High Calling”.

    This event, like Challenger before, remains one where I will forever remember where I was and what I was doing.

    It was just before 9 when Philip came into my ham radio room. I thought that maybe Mom made breakfast, but he said “Mom wants to see you. There’s something wrong with the Space Shuttle.”
    I got out of my seat, and thought “and this affects me how?” as I followed him upstairs. Karen had the cable news on, showing video of pieces of Columbia raining down over Texas. Even the Weather Channel radar was showing it, baffling the meteorologists who were unaware of the tragedy as it unfolded. On their radar, streaks of color appeared out of nowhere and followed the ballistic curve downwards. Video of Leroy Cain saying to lock the doors began to be shown on the cable news channels.

    My wife looked at me for hope. I shook my head; I had none to give her. We both worked in liquid steel, we both knew the conditions were not survivable.

    When I went to work, Tony, the office manager, was in tears as he handed me a photo of the crew, apologizing for not having had time to buy a frame. I attempted to comfort him, but all he could say was “How could this happen? How?”
    It was a question I would be asked many, many times in the coming weeks.

    I never did get a frame for that photo. I put it in her casket, as she died the day after you rolled Discovery out to the pad in early April, 2005.

  12. Zach says:

    Thank you for this, Wayne. When I was in third grade, my teacher, who knew how much I loved space exploration, pulled me out of recess to tell me about the Challenger. None of the other kids knew why I was crying when they all came in. I’m not a scientist or an engineer, and I’m not involved in space pursuits beyond just reading about them. So your insight as someone who was there feels very important to me, and I’m grateful you’re going to this effort.

    I know these astronauts were friends, and this was a horrible time for you. But I’m grateful you’re telling us about it. And I’m glad for all the work you did to make sure what went wrong was documented so commercial builders and NASA can work on preventing this. Anyway, thanks.

  13. Dave says:


    In July 1999 I was in training at Flight Safety Hobby when STS-93 reentered, her ground track taking the vehicle directly over Houston. My sim partner and I interrupted our studies to go outside the hotel and watch Columbia’s plasma trail overhead, and I looked at him and said “Just think, there are people inside there.”

    Godspeed, Columbia and her crew.

  14. Wayne – a very well written piece that brought me back in time, from a slightly different location. We were to the south, less than 10 miles, in our home north of the barge canal. Waiting for the boom-boom, coffee cups in hand, how safe we were looking up at the sky with NASA TV coverage in the background. The booms never sounded, and even before words were spoken on the broadcast, the huge pit in our stomachs and hearts grew until it felt impossible for them to grow any further. God speed to all of our heroes who have contributed to America’s most far-reaching and destiny-changing program “for all mankind.”

  15. Calli Arcale says:

    I got almost all the way down through the comments before the tears started. Just like the day of the accident, it took a while for it to sink in and the emotions started to flow. Thank you so much for sharing this, Mr Hale. It’s very emotional, and very important as well. This is part of the posterity of Columbia and her crew and all those who worked with them.

    Ten years ago. I was pregnant with my first child then. I remember also thinking “oh, they’ve got those suits so this time it’ll be different, they’ll survive”, but at that point I was just thinking where they *should* have been at the time I heard the news — near or over Florida. I’m a space fan, so I read all the publicly available stuff for fun. Shuttle News Reference Manual was often my bedtime reading. I was sure they’d be subsonic and have had a chance to bail. But of course, the breakup had happened earlier, and they were going much faster, and nobody’s ever bailed out at a speed like that. I had to get going, so I didn’t get to hear more updates on the TV. It gave me about half an hour of hope before getting to worship team rehearsal (it was Saturday morning) and learning from another space nut that in fact they had not survived.

    Shades of Challenger there, where by chance I got to think they were alive for a little bit longer. I was at the Bridger Bowl Ski Area near Bozeman, MT that day. It was a very cold day (January in Montana is *much* colder than Florida) so there were no crowds. The Alpine chair lift attendant had his radio tuned to a station reporting on the launch. I heard the countdown, main engine start, and liftoff, then had to board the lift. It was a long lift (they’ve rearranged the ski area since then, so you won’t find this if you go there now), taking about 10 minutes or so to get to the top. My dad boarded a few chairs behind me (gaps left deliberately by the lift operators to balance the load on a low-traffic day); it was long enough for him to hear “obviously a major malfunction”. He shared the news when we got to the top. We skiied some more, but not a full day. We went home and watched TV, while me and my brothers had our action figures act out scenarios where we somehow rescued the crew….

  16. Don Hammel says:


    Your blog and the upcoming STS-107 anniversary have inspired me to try to share my experience, although not nearly as eloquently as you. If you do not mind me referencing your blog, I would like to post the following on local forums. I also welcome any corrections you may have.


    Don Hammel

    February 1, 2003 is a day burned in my memory; much like your wedding day or the birth of a child. Unfortunately, it does not generate the same happy connotations.

    My day began with a 0300 EST wake up. Normally on a Saturday, that meant I was going fishing. That was not the case this Saturday; I had to go to work. The work site that day was Control Room #3 in Kennedy Space Center’s (KSC) Launch Control Center. I was the assigned Landing and Recovery Director for the STS-107 landing with a targeted first landing opportunity at 0916 EST followed by a second opportunity at 1050 EST.

    I needed to be on console by 0500 EST to support activation of the KSC Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) including the landing aids and assembling the post-landing convoy and contingency forces. The weather forecast was favorable for landing and the orbiter, Columbia, had enough consumables to safely stay in space for another four days. As a result, the landing sites at Edwards Air Force Base, CA and White Sands Space Harbor, NM were not activated for the first End of Mission day.

    Everyone was aware of the launch ascent ET foam shedding. However, it was not a significant concern early that day as foam shedding was not an uncommon event, had been dispositioned as “not a safety of flight issue”, and personnel were focused on the task at hand. Mission Control at Johnson Space Center and the Columbia crew in Space were actively working the deorbit preparations while we readied the SLF at KSC. The landing team at KSC was preparing for a long day. STS-107 was a SpaceHab mission with many time critical scientific experiments that required destow on the runway and then rushed to the waiting laboratory for analysis. This was expected to keep us on the runway for another 8.5 hours prior to the long tow to the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF).

    The day progressed well. There were no significant orbiter issues, the landing site was ready to support, and the weather remained favorable although the KSC runway selection was not clear. Changing the runway heading was not a real problem, but did introduce some extra steps if the change occurred after the convoy deployed and required the forward convoy to approach from the aft. From a selfish KSC perspective, we always preferred a runway 15 landing to the south since it eliminated a U-turn on the runway and three extra miles of towing to the OPF.

    At 0815 EST, the Columbia performed the deorbit burn. Although the vehicle and crew experience “zero G” in orbit, there is gravity. It is just offset by the centrifugal force of racing around the earth at over 17,500 mph. The deorbit burn is done with the orbiter flying backwards (this can be done in a vacuum), firing the Orbiter Maneuvering System (OMS) engines, and decreasing the velocity enough to allow gravity to take over. At this point, the orbiter and crew are returning to earth no matter what. The landing convoy is deployed to the runway to wait on the twin sonic booms, produced by the multiple shock waves upon supersonic transition, announcing its arrival.

    As we waiting at KSC, Columbia and her crew were falling to earth and re-entering the atmosphere. At such great speed, friction generated by air creates plasma and temperatures approaching 3,000 deg F; enough to burn and melt most things except for the thermal protection system on the orbiter entry surfaces. No “backwards flying” at this stage. Although a very hazardous event, it had been successfully accomplished 111 times previously during the shuttle program.

    JSC Mission Control has command and control responsibility of the vehicle and her crew during this phase of the mission. Depending on your role at KSC, you had limited access to the various mission control communication loops and no news channels to watch. I was fine with that since I was challenged to keep up with the eight channels that I had active. However on this day, it generated confusion. I was monitoring the Flight Director’s loop and putting together part of the story as it emerged.

    Beginning around 0850 EST anomalous temperature and pressure data was being down-linked from the left hand wheel well including inboard elevon, main landing gear strut, and tire pressure data. Unexpected communication and data drops were also being experienced during this time frame. By 0900 EST, all communication, data, and tracking with the vehicle were lost despite efforts to re-establish over the next ten minutes. No comm, telemetry, or tracking, WTF!?!?!?!?!?!?. They had to be somewhere? The sinking, empty feeling was setting in, the foam? In an offline telephone conversation with the Landing Support Officer at JSC I learned of the vehicle debris shedding reports. In fact, I believe at this point most folks watching the news at home were ahead of me. For all of the NASA contingency planning, simulations and staged forces, we did not have a plan or procedure for the vehicle and crew returning to earth across several thousand square miles. 0917 EST came and went without the familiar boom-boom at KSC. When defining a “bad day in the office”, I would have gladly traded the day for the diver’s with a jellyfish in his wetsuit.

    As events unfolded, the “long day” was realized as we locked down the control room and all associated mission processing areas, implemented data impoundment for the ensuing investigation, and initiated the only shuttle program Rapid Response Team. The DoD found and made available a C-141 aircraft that we hastily loaded with first responders and deployed to Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, LA to begin the recovery. In the days, weeks, and months that followed, I was heavily engaged in the Columbia debris recovery and reconstruction effort. It is a blessing to have a task to focus on in times of tragedy, rather than dwell on the loss.

    Ten years later, motivated by the upcoming anniversary and Wayne Hale’s insightful, stirring blog on the events leading up to the tragedy ( ), I am reflecting on the event as I experienced it and our loss. I am not sure for what purpose I wrote this other than it feels right to revisit the day. Certainly there are many lessons learned on many levels ranging from a national to a personal level. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board outlines many ( ) as does Wayne Hale’s blog from a more personal perspective.

    The loss of Columbia was significant and the loss of her crew was the real tragedy; seven talented, beautiful people living their dream while trying to advance ours.

    Rick Husband – USAF Colonel, Test Pilot and Instructor on his second Shuttle Mission. Husband and father of a daughter and son.

    Willie McCool – USN Commander and Pilot with over 400 carrier landings. First Shuttle Mission. Husband and father of three sons.

    David Brown – USN Captain, Flight Surgeon, and Pilot. First Shuttle Mission

    Kalpana Chawla – Native of India before moving to US and earning a PhD in Aerospace Engineering. Second Shuttle Mission.

    Michael Anderson – USAF Lt. Colonel, Test Pilot and Instructor. Second Shuttle Mission. Husband and father of two daughters.

    Laurel Clark – USN Captain and Flight Surgeon. First Shuttle Mission. Wife and mother of a son.

    Ilan Ramon – Israeli Air Force Captain, Fighter Pilot and first Israeli Astronaut. Husband and father of four.

    (STS-107 Crew Photo Here)

    God bless them and their families. I sincerely hope that our nation pursues a human spaceflight path that honors their sacrifice and legacy.

  17. Steve Bryson says:

    Dear Wayne, Thank you so much for these posts. Kalpana Chawla was a friend so this is personal for me. Your blunt and honest telling of the story from the JSC manager’s perspective is very healing.

    My wife and I went to KSC to view the launch from the Saturn V center grandstands, It was a beautiful and happy day shared with Kalpana’s family and friends. It was great to see among those friends her trainers from JSC. We live in the San Francisco bay area, so we got up early to watch the shuttle reenter on Feb. 3. I reflected to my wife what a unique experience it was to see both launch and reentry. Then we went inside to watch the landing on NASA TV. My wife was the first to say something was wrong because of the expressions on the flight controller’s faces. I wasn’t really paying attention to the radio traffic. The rest you know and we all share.

    Thank you again and please continue these open, honest and insightful posts.

  18. Roger says:

    I have one question . You use the term in the “Flying a Mature Vehicle – Or Not, “The Monte Carlo Run”. What is or was the Monte Carlo Run.

    I have learnt so much from your blog. Many thanks
    Thanks in anticipation


    • waynehale says:

      Monte Carlo analysis is a statistical tool to analyze the engineering aspects of trajectories. In the parlance of the day, a monte carlo ‘run’ was one case out of the dozens or thousands that were generated to provide the statistics for the analysis.

  19. Jama says:

    Thank you for all the info. After reading everything, I only have one question: Since foam hits were a common occurence during takeoff, how come NASA never calculated in the most exhaustive manner the different possible force/angle/impact trajectories and the possibility of it hitting and/or destroying the RCC tiles? I mean, the tiles are right there in the middle and they cover a big area, it’s not like they’re hidden or small.
    And the tests that were made after the Columbia accident showed that the foam penetrated the tiles with relative ease. So it wasn’t really a case of bad luck that it hit the tiles in STS-107, because it could have hit them so many times before in previous flights and it didn’t.
    It just doesn’t make sense to me that they discarded the danger from the foam like that, when they were so careful and analytical with other things. Perhaps if another word was used to describe the “foam”, things could be different? It’s amazing how language can affect our subconcious sometimes.

    • waynehale says:

      Not as easy as you might think. In the early days, the transport mechanism was not well understood and computing capabilities did not allow for the type of analysis we did after Columbia. And your understanding is not correct, much of the post Columbia testing showed the tiles were pretty resilient to the type of glancing blow that a foam debris impact would cause. In essence the testing confirmed the flight experience that foam debris was mostly a nuisance maintenance issue. Except when it wasn’t. The subject of why and how the community got comfortable with foam debris is long and complex; it would take a whole series of posts to explain it. Some of it is the ‘normalization of deviance’ which caused the loss of Challenger; some of it is the shear number of critical issues that cropped up on every flight; and a lot of it has to do with the financial cutbacks that were made in the engineering and safety staff. Go back and read the post on “a mature vehicle – or not”.

      I really don’t think the entomology of “foam” caused a disregard of the danger.

  20. Surge says:

    Shame on you and your team Wayne, for letting down yourselves, the crew, and the nation.
    This is such a pathetic example of a tremendous lack of leadership. NASA didn’t learn from Challenger, and even now, I don’t get the sense that it learned from Columbia.
    I’m stunned by the culture of complacency, fear, and ignorance.
    You asked your old friend, Phil?, to look into getting photos, but he thought you weren’t really asking him to do it, so he never did…HUH?!?
    YOU were the Ascent/Entry director and you didn’t have images of the shuttle on ascent. Then you gave up on trying to get them after one or two tries. So as the leader on this part of the flight you were satisfied to not have adequate photos of the shuttle? HUH?!

    It’s unfathomable that you, Hall, and the others weren’t tried (and likely convicted) for manslaughter. I don’t know how you can live with the guilt, and shame.

    • waynehale says:

      Of course I agree with every point you make, except . . .
      I was not the ascent/entry flight director, that was LeRoy Cain . . .
      and we had pictures of the shuttle on ascent, we were asking for pictures of a higher quality while it was in orbit . . .
      and I wasn’t calling Phil because he was an old friend, but as the Director of Mission Operations for that flight, in his official capacity . . . .
      and I made an official request of Phil, but he did not understand it that way . . . .
      and my name is Hale, not Hall . . .
      Other than that, I pretty much agree with everything else you have to say

      • Surge says:

        Your honesty is appreciated and rare. Sorry for the misquotes, and I meant Ham as in Linda Ham, not Hall.
        You are lucky that the government didn’t seek a manslaughter conviction. (Reference for example the Italian government that convicted two members of the Williams F1 team for the 1994 death of Ayrton Senna.)
        Finally, it is easy for those of us who have the luxury of hindsight to judge. And while it doesn’t change anything, I for one do not think I would have acted any differently.

  21. Thank you for sharing this Wayne. Horrible to remember and I’m sure quite tragic to write from your firsthand memory. I was waiting to board a 747 at FT Bliss AAF that morning, to invade Iraq. 😦

  22. Dave AZ says:

    Criminal prosecution is not the way to go in matters like this. Europe does plenty of things that the United States does not do, thank God.

    • Peri Duncan says:

      Amen. The best way to make aviation/aerospace tragedies more frequent is to make human error (no malice aforethought) criminally punishable. When people fear for their freedom, they are less likely to be honest and truthful, and the real causes cannot be identified and fixed.

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