Bringing Columbia Home

“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]

columbia.jpg

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 disasterColumbia 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/

STS107 Crew

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)

https://www.nasa.gov/centers/dryden/news/X-Press/shuttle_tribute/STS-107_crew.html

Apollo VI – XVII

ApolloThis book is primarily a photographic record of the resumption of  manned space missions after the tragic Apollo I fire in which three astronauts lost their lives.

The program started again with Apollo VII, taking a crew of three into earth orbit in the new Apollo command module.
Then taking a huge leap of faith, Apollo 8 followed, taking man away from earth for the first time, travelling to, and orbiting, the moon before returning to earth.

The crew gave themselves only a 50-50 chance of success.  Considering the alternative, a 50% chance of failure and what that would mean…  I doubt any mission with such a risk factor would, or could, be considered today.

Those two missions, particularly Apollo 8, helped to fast track the US race to the moon and set the foundation for six successful moon missions and the aborted Apollo 13 attempt.

Photos in the book illustrate images of the moon, the earth from the moon, and the space craft and astronauts involved in the Apollo program. They were initially taken for scientific, technical and navigational purposes: helping to identify possible future landing sites, observing the condition of spacecraft and equipment, and recording lunar geology.
If you recall moon photos with a grid of small crosses all over the images, they are marks added by the photographic equipment to allow the calculation of distances and object sizes on the lunar surface.

Brief details are given of each mission crew and their basic achievements during those missions.
There is also a section about the photographic hardware and film stocks used, and an overview of the ongoing training Astronauts were given. Experts were also on hand in mission control to give on the spot instructions should a challenging photographic opportunity arise. An example of one of those exchanges and the resulting photo is included in the book.

One of the facts I found interesting is that many photos taken on the moon have never been released or viewed. Not because of any conspiracy trying to hide photographic details, but because the crew forgot to pack the film into the lunar ascent module prior to leaving the lunar surface. Therefore the undeveloped film remains there on the moon.

 

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime, by Val McDermid

I do a lot of my reading in my work lunchbreaks.

This book is perhaps not the best lunchtime material: discovering the forensic importance of blowflies and their larvae (maggots) while chewing on last night’s left over Aloo Gobi and rice wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste.

However there are compensations for the inevitable moments of squeamishness. McDermid’s study of various branches of forensic investigation is fascinating.

She takes the reader from early, historical ideas and practices through to present day scientific investigative techniques, with examples given from actual cases.

“The governing principles of forensic science, as laid down by Edmond Locard at the beginning of the last century, is that ‘every contact leaves a trace’. But unless we know how to analyse, categorise and understand those traces, they’re not much use when it comes to catching criminals. As scientists have made new discoveries, so the art of detection has advanced.”

Various different disciplines come into play, through which different “traces” can be examined to determine a course of events associated with a crime, an accident, a natural death or even a war atrocity. Each chapter of Forensics highlights a different field of investigation, starting with the crime or accident scene itself.

Noted evidence can include the presence (and activity) of insects, fingerprints, blood spatter and DNA testable material. Beyond the incident scene, evidence can be examined through various means including autopsies on victims, toxicology tests (to determine the presence and effects of drugs or poisons) and DNA comparisons. Non-biological forensics are also given a couple of chapters, with digital forensics playing a part in finding evidence through computer, phone and CCTV records; while forensic psychology looks into the personalities and possible motivations of potential suspects.

While all of these disciplines have been useful in solving crimes, McDermid also refers to some instances in which forensic evidence has led to questionable results. One example given was a case in which an interpretation of fingerprint evidence led to a wrong conviction, as well as implicating police in career-ending acts of misconduct that were later shown to be unfounded.

While forensic sciences have changed the nature of crime investigation, mostly for the better,  outcomes are always dependent on the experience and expertise of those reviewing and understanding what the forensic evidence means.

McDermid’s book gives an excellent, informative overview of the role of forensic sciences. My interest in the topic came about as a side-track from my recent journey into crime fiction, a diversion related to my occasional detour into true crime cases.

At the risk of using a gratuitously inappropriate metaphor, this book has helped to put some meat on the bones; giving me a better understanding of investigative practices that have been touched upon in other books I’ve read recently.