“My fellow Americans, this day has brought terrible news and sadness to our country. At nine a.m., Mission Control in Houston lost contact with our space shuttle Columbia. A short time later, debris was seen falling from the skies above Texas…
“The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors.”
[President George W. Bush 2.04pm, Feb 1, 2003]
Bringing Columbia Home tells the difficult story of a tragic milestone of the American space program, the loss of a second space shuttle and its crew.
The scale of the disaster and the challenges that followed are recounted with candour by the authors.
I have clear memories of the loss of the first shuttle, Challenger.
With an early start at work, I switched on the radio to listen to the news while I ate breakfast.
It was all about the Challenger.
What isn’t so clear in my memory is whether I then turned on the TV. I suspect I did, but can’t say for sure. Footage of the shuttle’s destruction was repeated so often afterwards, that I can’t remember when I first saw it.
Something I do remember thinking, was despite the Challenger’s fate, I’d willingly join a shuttle crew even if it was leaving the day after the Challenger’s disastrous launch. But maybe such attitudes are easy for an Australian with no real chance of putting that willingness to the test.
Columbia was different. I know I heard about it, but for some reason I can’t remember the details of when and how.
Maybe because it wasn’t so public and sudden. It wasn’t seen live by millions around the world.
The realisation of what happened was gradual, building up over time as disparate facts came together to confirm the worst.
A loss of contact. Empty skies over a Florida runway. A landing strip countdown clock now counting up.
Reports of countless sonic booms over Texas. Suspected plane crash, gas pipeline rupture, train derailment, earthquake – all proposed as explanations for what was experienced on the ground.
And the rain of debris falling across multiple states.
Michael Leinbach was launch director at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida and supervised the launch of Columbia on January 16, 2003. He was also present for the expected return, waiting for the first sight of the returning shuttle prior to landing. The return that didn’t happen.
He then became part of the massive recovery mission when reports of the shuttle’s destruction were confirmed by the discovery of its wreckage throughout a long, wide debris trail.
In Bringing Columbia Home, with co-author Jonathan Ward, he gives his account of the recovery operation: first priority retrieving the crew, then securing as much wreckage as possible to look for the cause of the shuttle loss.
The logistics of the exercise were unimaginable: coordinating thousands of personnel from numerous Government departments, supplemented by countless volunteers, and organising for them to be housed, fed and transported.
As a side issue of the story, one thing that stood out to me was the scale of American bureaucracy, with countless different law enforcement and emergency response organisations – but to their credit potential rivalries between groups were cast aside to get on with the difficult job.
The work of those searching came with a cost beyond the time they committed. The difficult conditions led to the crash of a helicopter and the death of two if its crew.
After weeks of collecting wreckage, came the task of sorting through what had been found, as far as possible reconstructing and examining the parts in a Kennedy Space Centre warehouse, trying to see what had caused the shuttle’s failure.
Most of the initial damage was on the leading edge of the left wing. That evidence confirmed suspicions that the integrity of the heat shielding had been compromised by an impact with insulating foam that had broken away from the main fuel tank not long after launch.
Subsequent testing showed the unexpected force of such a collision with a lightweight substance. Foam pieces fired at a spare shuttle wing surprisingly blasted a significant hole in its protective layer.
Despite the tragic nature of the story, the retrieval, reconstruction and examination of Columbia also had it’s poignant (and even humorous moments). Among the wreckage delivered to the KSC warehouse was a plush toy dinosaur, assumed to be a personal item taken on board by a crew member. However it was determined that no one had taken it on board, and the toy had nothing to do with the Columbia or its crew. Staff at the warehouse adopted the toy as a mascot and one of the astronauts on the team took it with her on a later space shuttle mission.
The Columbia accident, with the loss of its seven crew members and the two searchers, was a profound tragedy, but many people felt that divine intervention prevented things from being worse than they were.
Had Columbia disintegrated two or three minutes earlier, much of its debris would have fallen on Dallas and its suburbs, causing untold damage. A breakup a few seconds later would have sent some of the crew members’ remains into Toledo Bend Reservoir or the Gulf of Mexico, from which they would likely never have been recovered. (p 288)
The human face of the Columbia crew lost on re-entry.
Everyone agrees on two remarkable facts: The Columbia recovery was the largest ground search effort in American history: and it was also one with no internal strife, bickering or inter-agency squabbles. Everone involved had a single goal and worked collectively to achieve it – to bring Columbia and her crew home. (p 289)
See the authors’ blog at https://bringingcolumbiahome.wordpress.com/
STS-107 crewmembers included, from left, mission specialist David Brown, commander Rick D. Husband, mission specialist Laurel Blair Sutton Clark, mission specialist Kalpona Chawla, mission specialist Michael P. Anderson, pilot William C. McCool and payload specialist Ilan Ramon. (NASA Photo)