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.