Finding Columbia

IMG_0877[1] IMG_1087[1]A couple of days ago, I had the rare opportunity to visit the Columbia Debris Repository on the 16th floor of the VAB at Kennedy Space Center.  It is a solemn experience to walk among the remaining parts of the space shuttle which bear witness to the tremendous forces that broke the vehicle apart and ended the lives of seven brave astronauts. 

This experience is not available to the general public.  But you can find places to see parts of Columbia.  The data recorder, found miraculously intact in a field in east Texas, is on display in public areas at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the frame for the side hatch window is in the entrance display case of the Kennedy Space Center headquarters building in Florida.  There is another part reportedly on display at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, although I have never been able to find it on my many visits there.

These artifacts have great engineering value showing how future spacecraft should be built to withstand the extreme conditions of space flight. 

But there is a backstory that is more important. There is a story that must be told of how poor decisions were made, mistakes, and hubris.  This more important story is not found in the artifacts, although they emphasize the consequences. It is for us who lived through those days to share that story.

It is not enough to remember the sacrifice of our brave friends, although we should do that.  It is not enough to study the wreckage for clues of how to build better aerospace systems although we should do that.  It is mandatory that we remember how those sacrifices and that wreckage came to be.  And to prevent it from happening in the future.

Recently, some have said that loss of human life in spaceflight is to be accepted as a part of the cost of exploring the universe.  That may be, but those of us in the business must always believe that going forward we have to all we can to prevent accidents.

Because forward into the universe we must go.

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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18 Responses to Finding Columbia

  1. David Fabrizio says:

    I wish you would write a book. It would be very interesting.

  2. Bob Rollins says:

    Wayne, I go back to Gus’s near drowning and the Apollo oxygen fire and what you say is what is really important. All the “technology” available will not make up for people who want to depend on it, rather than working together to do things right. I recall the somewhat autocratic work ethic that prevailed in Huntsville that made most of what they did, work. You may be able to divide up a problem to solve individual pieces or a program to manage individual projects, but if you don’t put them back together, they will fail at the weakest point.

  3. Dan Adamo says:

    Happy 2014, Wayne! February 1 is an appropriate day for this post. I think your experiences and aerospace history in general teach us sustainable human space exploration, beyond the funding and politics, is first of all *responsible* space exploration. Responsibility requires we not venture outside the established flight envelope without compelling reasons to do so. It requires rules and standards be rigorously applied and enforced; not waived as a matter of routine. If we’re serious about exploring with humans beyond Earth orbit, a responsible program would not restrict heavy-lift launches to a single pad, making anything but an Apollo 13-style self-rescue unthinkable. When one-way tickets are sold to colonize Mars, a responsible enterprise would determine if long-term human survival and reproduction at one-third gravity is practical first.

  4. Steve Pemberton says:

    A couple of years ago I learned about the Columbia Safety Exhibit that you spearheaded during your remaining months as Space Shuttle Program Manager. In February 2008 the Columbia Safety Exhibit which included several pieces of Columbia debris went on display in the lobby of the JSC headquarters building. The exhibit was later moved to the lobby of Mission Control, and from what I understand was eventually displayed at all of the NASA centers before being placed in the Columbia Debris Repository at KSC.

    Your wish at the time was that every new person that came to work for the space program would be taught the lessons of Columbia, which is that each and every day there must be a commitment to safety. Hopefully what you wished for is still coming true and that the lessons of Columbia have not been forgotten.

    • waynehale says:

      Unfortunately, after that tour of all NASA centers in 2008 (the fifth anniversary of the tragedy), the exhibit has been locked up and not on display. Very disheartening. It is all together, ready for travel, in the Columbia debris repository.

      • Michael Grabois says:

        I had the opportunity to look at the debris room in 2005. It was incredibly moving, seeing such a large orbiter reduced to such small pieces, and what that meant for those inside.

        Photos I took of the safety exhibit when it was on display at JSC’s Mission Control Center lobby are in a set on my Flickr page:

        “Everyone that touches a mission, on every level, is responsible for what it represents and the lives that are involved.”

  5. cthulhu says:

    Wayne, as someone who deals with “how safe is enough” on the airplane side of things, I respect your sentiments expressed in the penultimate paragraph, but I think this is only part of the story. In the real world of finite money, finite schedule, and finite performance, somewhere decisions on what is safe enough must be made, and it is better that they be made with eyes wide open. As has been said before, we could keep astronauts from dying in space by keeping them on the ground, but somehow I think that would not satisfy many people.

    For a brand new type of military aircraft in early flight test, somewhere between 1 and 5 in 1000 odds of a crash (or Class A mishap) per flight is generally considered sufficient safety by most contracting authorities at this time (it’s been much less in the past). Like it or not, we need to set requirements on space travel in a similar fashion, and different customers may have different standards for what they consider to be acceptable risk. Within the requirements, we engineers will do our best to maximize safety while meeting the cost, performance, etc., requirements too, but is is a trade and it should be recognized as such. That’s the conversation that needs to happen: what trades are we willing to make that affect safety? Because if the answer is “none under any circumstances” then maybe we don’t really want manned space flight after all…

  6. Ron Reed says:

    I would just like to thank you for your sincere and poignant thoughts on Columbia. I worked on the Shuttle program for 26 years and spent several weeks in Lufkin and Nacogdoches, TX assisting in the recovery. I too, have been up to the Columbia Debris Repository in VAB a few times, mostly when they were initially bringing in the debris. There is nothing quite like walking into that room knowing what is stored there. The feeling can be quite overwhelming, not unlike the very first time I saw some of the first debris on the floor of a hangar at the Nacogdoches airport.

    Stunning to say the least.

    We can only hope that at some point we will again be able explore space and go beyond LEO so the loss of these brave men and women will not be in vain. Hail Columbia!

  7. Hello Wayne,
    I recently discovered your blog, and am reading through some of the older entries with great interest. I wonder what your thoughts were on the Soviet space shuttle Buran are? Do you think it had any significant advantages over the American design? Given the degree of cooperation between the US and Soviet/Russian space programs from the Apollo/Soyuz Test Project to Mir and the ISS, was there ever any talk of using elements of Buran/Energia to improve the American space shuttle?


  8. Mark says:

    Mr. Hale,

    With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that the risk of an orbiter being damaged by launch debris was not adequately addressed until Columbia was lost. It was a risk that was accepted throughout the shuttle program up to that point. Perhaps the most dramatic “close call” occurred during STS-27 when Atlantis was hit by SRB debris, and a thick aluminum plate under the missing tiles was the only thing that prevented a burnthrough.

    Perhaps this came out during the accident investigation for Columbia, but are you aware of any debris-related actions that NASA / Shuttle Program management took after STS-27? To me, this seems like the biggest missed opportunity to have fixed the launch debris problem. Of course, another stand-down immediately after the return-to-flight on STS-26 might have been a fatal blow to the shuttle program. If any debris-related actions were taken, I suspect they were limited to debris coming from SRB insulation which caused the problem on STS-27. The mystery of ET foam debris would not be solved until the STS-114-121 stand-down, as you pointed out previously.

    • waynehale says:

      Of course the problematic ablator used on the SRB nose caps for STS-27 was immediately eliminated. But the program fought foam debris damage to tiles for almost the entire program. Many changes were made to the ET foam applications and dense (more impact resistant) tiles were installed in some damage prone areas. But this was never considered a safety of flight issue, just a maintenance problem due to the amount of TPS repair required during orbiter turn around during flight.

      And nobody, to the best of my knowledge, considered foam losses to be a threat to the reinforced carbon-carbon panels on the wing leading edge. In fact, during the STS-107 flight, all the attention was focused on possible impact damage to the tiles, not the RCC.

      It’s hard to solve an issue when you are working on the wrong problem.

  9. Yusef Johnson says:

    I spent 3 weeks in Palestine searching for debris. It was surprisingly cathartic, especially talking with the folks from KSC who had come in to search. It was just hard to grasp at times, picking up pieces from the forest floor…

  10. Beth says:

    “Recently, some have said that loss of human life in spaceflight is to be accepted as a part of the cost of exploring the universe.”

    This is as true as saying any human endeavor will contain errors and mistakes; it doesn’t absolve us from trying our damnedest to eliminate them. We have to go forward with this intent, or we let down the brave men and women who venture on our behalf.

    Thank you as always for an excellent read.


  11. John Yeargin says:

    I took one of the last public tours of the VAB on February 20, 2014. At the time I was unaware of the Columbia Debris Repository room on the 16th level. I would have asked our guide in the building about it. My question is now that the VAB is being used by private industry and is no longer open for tours, what has happened to the Repository? Is it still there? Has it been transferred to the Smithsonian Museum who had said in the past that they would be proud to have it?

    • waynehale says:

      The Columbia debris repository has never been open for public tours, nor is the space suitable for that. It has not been handed over to the Smithsonian, nor do I think there are any plans to do so. It remains under the control of NASA HQ Safety & Mission Assurance organization, currently lead by Terry Wilcutt.

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