It was deja vu all over
again. Much of America woke up on February 1st only to discover
that Columbia, the country's first fully-functional space shuttle,
had disintegrated in orbit over Texas as it re-entered Earth's
For ANN Associate Editor Pete Combs, it was a trial by fire.
That first Saturday in February was his first day on the job.
Living in Dallas (TX) at the time, Combs heard the sonic boom that
accompanied Columbia's destruction. Moments later, he and
Correspondent Rob Milford were on the phone as Milford sped south
to the debris field.
First Reports: Appears To Have Broken Up Over Texas
NASA's Space Shuttle Columbia broke up in flight this morning as
it re-entered Earth's athmosphere over Texas. All seven crew
members, including Israel's first-ever man in space, are feared
Columbia was approximately 13 minutes from touchdown, flying
200,000 feet above the Texas plain, when it apparently broke up.
Videotapes show a single contrail becoming many just after the
traditional sonic boom was heard in Dallas-Fort Worth. The shuttle
disappeared from NASA radar and ground controllers lost contact
with the astronauts immediately.
It appears to be the first time in 42 years of manned space
flight that a spacecraft was lost on re-entry.
Later that day, Combs and Milford filed this report:
A Charred Electronics
A Piece Of Pipe.
A Homecoming That Never Was...
One recovery worker described it as "trying to find a million
needles in a haystack that's five thousand square miles wide." The
firefighters, rescue workers and the increasing number of National
Guard troops are stone-somber as they go about their grim task,
first marking off areas where shuttle debris litters the landscape,
then waiting for someone with FEMA or NASA to come by, catalog and
photograph the wreckage and, eventually, haul it off. Debris is
being taken to Barksdale AFB (LA), where it's being carefully
inventoried and investigated. Meanwhile, in Houston, hundreds of
mourners gathered at the Clear Lake Baptist Church, near the
Johnson Space Center, for an evening memorial service."
President Bush addressed the nation that terrible day:
All Americans today are thinking, as well, of the families of
these men and women who have been given this sudden shock and
grief. You're not alone. Our entire nation grieves with
you. And those you loved will always have the respect and
gratitude of this country.
The disintegration of shuttle Columbia led to a painful
retrospective at NASA. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board,
comprised of former astronauts, engineers and experts, found that a
chunk of super-lightweight insulating foam had broken off the
shuttle's external fuel tank and probably punctured the leading
edge of the space plane's left wing. Flight controllers were aware
of the problem, but dismissed it:
Seldom in the course of history is a single, heartwrenching
tragedy so solidly linked to a precipitating moment.
Yet, right there on audio tape, recorded during a nationwide
conference call, is the voice of Linda Ham (right), a shuttle
manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston (TX):
properties and density of the foam wouldn't do any damage," she
says in a conversation with engineer Don McCormick.
With that turn of words, Columbia was doomed, five days after a
chunk of insulating foam from the orbiter's external fuel tank
slammed into the shuttle's left wing leading edge. That strike,
according to preliminary information from the Columbia Accident
Investigation Board, most likely allowed superheated gasses to
enter the wing structure, leading to the shuttle's disintegration
as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere.
"Really, I don't think there is much we can do," Ham said in the
January 21st conference call. "It's not really a factor during the
flight because there isn't much we can do about it."
That kind of conversation and NASA's apparent willingness to
accept elevated risk levels as normal flight conditions led to the
CAIB's warning that the space agency not only had to solve the
falling debris problem. It also has to make some major changes in
the way it does business.
The CAIB issued its report on the Columbia tragedy in
The CAIB report
concludes that while NASA's present Space Shuttle is not inherently
unsafe, a number of mechanical fixes are required to make the
Shuttle safer in the short term. The report also concludes that
NASA's management system is unsafe to manage the shuttle system
beyond the short term and that the agency does not have a strong
The Board determined that physical and organizational causes
played an equal role in the Columbia accident -- that the NASA
organizational culture had as much to do with the accident as the
foam that struck the Orbiter on ascent. The report also notes other
significant factors and observations that may help prevent the next
Now, the big question is: When will the shuttles fly again? NASA
is aiming for a launch no later than next November. But the space
agency is still scrambling to meet the recommendations of the CAIB
-- a self-imposed pre-condition to returning to flight.
But that's a story for 2004. This is the year we remember
another group of seven astronauts. We honor them and we recall the
last moments of their flight, as recorded on video tape:
They were having fun, laughing, joking, enjoying their last
minutes in space as Columbia re-entered the Earth's atmosphere.
They were working their checklists. They were looking out the
They made faces at the camera. They joked.
"There is not even a hint of concern, anxiety, nothing ... It's
a very emotional piece because of what you already know, and that
they don't," NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe told reporters at NASA
headquarters before public release of the video.
Commander Rick Husband, Pilot Willie McCool, Mission Specialists
Dave Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson and Laurel Clark, and
Israeli Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon have all gone west. Godspeed
to all of them. They will never be forgotten.
FMI: Notes From The Debris Field;
Love, Wonder, Joy: A Final Message From
Space; CAIB Report