22 thoughts on “Nineteen Years On”

  1. This one held up: Assuming that they have confidence to fly again after they determine the cause, they’ll continue to operate with the three-vehicle fleet, until we come up with a more rational way of getting people into space, whatever that turns out to be.

    Hard to fault the Bush Administration’s *basic* response, after the CAIB report was handed in: Make modest improvements, launch the minimum necessary Shuttle missions to finish ISS with LON orbiters standing by, and then send the surviving orbiters to museums. The problem, as we all know, came in with what Bush’s new NASA admin decided to have replace it. Fortunately, his successor’s NASA team came up with a better idea, and we ended up using the (more reliable, sad to say) Soyuz as a stopgap for crew until it was ready. (Some credit to Griffin for COTS, though, I suppose.) No thanks to congressional kibitzing.

    The bigger scrum over your discussion of human life was inevitable. Obviously our societal approach to risk has turned for the worse (excessive) in the last couple of generations, but you are right that the extreme quantitative paucity and comcomittant high expense of humans in space also contributed to this distorted valuation. If we had a genuinely robust space economy – with many vehicles, crewed and uncrewed, flitting about the inner solar system or even beyond – then we might be getting to close to the state of affairs in the early golden age of aviation: The loss of a vehicle or some lives would certainly trigger investigations and some media treatment, but nothing on the order of what we experienced in 1986 or 2003.

    Fortunately, in 2022 we seem to be a lot farther along the road to realizing that happy possibility. Pity it has taken us so long to get here.

  2. P.S. Your discussion of the enormous dilemma of possible rescue scenarios was, as we now know from the CAIB report (pp. 173ff.), even more of a vivid possibility, had NASA managers gotten prompt imagery of the Columbia‘s wing within the first 48 hours. There *was* the possibility of attempting a rescue with Atlantis, thanks to its advanced processing stage and Columbia‘s extended duration package, but we also know it would have been very high risk, with basically no margin for delay or error.

    Had I been the admin, I’d have been minded to try it, but I also know I would have aged 20 years that month. Imagine losing both crews and both orbiters.

    1. I bet there would have been a long line of volunteers to fly Atlantis to rescue their comrades. If it came off NASA would have been unable to do any wrong for quite a while.
      Not even getting the imagery was criminal neglect after a couple of low level engineers reported that there might be a problem.

      1. Wayne Hale (then deputy chief of the Flight Director Office for Shuttle Operations), who was one of those people who put in a request for imagery of the heat shield, has an interesting blog entry about what went down:


        Wayne admits that by the time he made the request, it would have been too late to save Columbia. But more interestingly, in the comments he offers a defense of Linda Ham, who drew a lot of the heat for her role in the controversy: “Linda is one of the hardest working, smartest people that I know and in her place I would have done exactly what she did. Think long and hard before you sit in judgement.”

  3. Thanks for sharing, Rand. I had the chance last year to take a trip with my son to see both Atlantis and Discovery, and the memorial(s) at Cape Canaveral. Every year on these anniversaries I feel that same sadness. I was only in 3rd grade when Challenger was lost, but I remember my teacher pulling me out of lunch to tell me the news (she knew I loved learning about space exploration), and just crying my little eyes out.

    And then just that strange fireball in the sky and the silence on the radio; so sad. More than sad; Columbia even more than Challenger broke my heart.

    I have such a love/hate thing with the Shuttle. I loved the beautiful display of Atlantis, and appreciate how really wonderful the vehicle was. I understand all the awful compromises that wound up costing those 14 lives. Space is hard and still quite deadly, but I hope it won’t always be that way.

    Anyway, thanks again for sharing. I appreciate your insights as always.

    1. I remember Challenger day because I had turned on the TV at home in Sacramento that morning hoping to see live coverage and there wasn’t any.

      And then suddenly the morning news show cut away to silent footage of small things in the sky, falling. If there was sound it wasn’t anything I could make sense of. It took a long time, or felt like a long time anyway, before anybody said what was going on.

      When the Columbia disaster happened I was living here in Georgia, and my late wife and I were on a shopping errand. We weren’t in the habit of having the radio on in the car but for some reason we turned it on that day and heard about it almost immediately.

  4. Challenger I watched live. I had gotten into the habit at that time of watching the live TV images over CNN but with the sound off and instead picked up the NASA feed directly via SSB off WA3NAN on the 40 meter ham band on shortwave. I stayed for as long as I could until I heard the call “…obviously a major malfunction”. I switched off both. I was very upset. Went into work with the news. Everyone at work went running to get to a TV. I just sat in my office staring at my VT100 compatible terminal and did squat that day.

    When Columbia happened, I was sick in bed with the flu. I heard about it 2nd hand when my Mom called to ask what I thought. I said about what? And then she filled me in. I thought: “Here we go again. This will be it for the Shuttle as a viable space system.”

    1. I was at work, resenting not being able to watch the Challenger launch, when my then girlfriend called: “Something when wrong with the Shuttle. They think the astronauts are dead.” I went home without telling anyone, turned on the TV, and was almost fired the next day. A friend and I talked about upcoming Shuttle-Centaur and decided it wouldn’t be happening. He said, “I guess that’s it for Galileo.” My reply was, “At least this wasn’t Hubble.” Challenger led directly to my writing “Harvesting the Near-Earthers” and “Fellow Traveler,” and a significant revival of my then-moribund writing career.

  5. I turned on the TV to catch the Columbia landing, and there was an empty sky, with the words, “Columbia Missing.” I thought, “Missing? How the fuck can it be missing?” Then I realized what must have happened. I always thought of Columbia as “my” Shuttle, because I watched STS-1 from the press site.

    1. A Shuttle couldn’t do a go-around or enter a holding pattern. Not knowing where it went down, it was certain that if didn’t land on schedule, it had been lost in flight.

      Back to the Ignorance is Strength approach to even checking if Columbia was damaged, this goes back to the heat-shield trouble light on John Glenn’s mission. The mission controllers were following a “don’t scare the passenger(s)” approach to telling Glenn to not jettison the retro pack on reentry without telling him why. His fellow astronauts and especially his Cap Com were said to be upset — “he is a pilot and a man in uniform and deserves to know!”

      Suppose that a jagged gash in the leading edge of the wing of Columbia was discovered? Could some far-out Duck Tape repair be attempted on an EVA? Stuff bags of water to seal the hole with ice? Devise some “ballistic” reentry maneuver by placing the Shuttle into a flat spin?

      Even if the chance of such a remedy was remote, should not the crew be told of their situation and offered such a desperate measure?

    2. We watched it lift-off for the first time at the intersection of the NASA Causeway and US 1having camped out at the exit ramp the night before. My co-working friends and I (3 of us) made the trip down to Florida by driving straight through the night taking shifts in a Renault Le Car loaded to the hilt with camping gear. Since we only could get motel reservations for one night two days before the original launch day. We spent that first day taking the NASA tour that took us within 1/2 mi of the pad!! They closed it the next day in prep for the launch the following day. We camped out that night. But the next day we had that scrub at T-33 seconds. Delay for at least two days? What to do? Go home? No way! DISNEYWORLD!! Worked perfectly. Drove back from Orlando and camped out again at the exit ramp. Quite the show. Not as good a viewing spot as yours but quite dramatic nonetheless. Then the drive back. We actually debated whether to drive on to Edwards for the landing. But we decided not too. Good thing too. Le Car had had enough of us by the time we reached Le Pennsylvania and started acting up. I figure it would have stranded us in White Sands NM had we tried it.

  6. OT, but there is apparently a kilometer wide asteroid at Earth-Moon L4. Why isn’t this huge news? Elon?
    Pity Apollo was stopped because IIRC some of the proposed post Apollo Moon landing missions were to go to L4 and L5 and poke around.

  7. A former colleague of mine was an astronaut who was “attached” to Columbia. He never flew, as it turns out, but had a few interesting insights into what they might have been able to do. A number of astronauts had brainstormed possible ways to save the vehicle on entry, and came up with an idea to use materials on board the Columbia to fill in the missing wing leading edge. It would be sacrificial, but they believed it would last just long enough – especially if they kept just enough left rudder on to shadow the patch from the brunt of the freestream.

    I never heard that from anyone else, but then, I never talked with anyone else about it.

    1. The problem was, regardless of materials and desire, the Columbia crew had no means to egress the crew compartment and translate to the damage. In fact, they didn’t even know where the damage was or how extensive it was, because nobody imaged it.

      The biggest mistake on Columbia, once the decision was made to ignore ET foam shed, was the refusal to get imagery. All else being equal, this still cost NASA tens if not hundreds of millions as it tried after the fact to guess exactly how much damage was done. And obtaining the imagery would have been so easy.

      if they kept just enough left rudder on to shadow the patch from the brunt of the freestream.

      With the imagery, I still doubt they could have saved the vehicle or the crew. However, I do wonder with the certainty of the damage extent that perhaps other solutions to try and save the crew might have been attempted. My own thought would be to give up trying to land the vehicle and figure out a way to get to a bailout speed and altitude. Instead nothing was tried, and innocent people on the ground were put in unnecessary risk as debris rained down on them.

    2. I think this came out at the hearings and is in the published investigation report. I’ve known about the plan since back in the day, so it must have been published somewhere. But it’s been 35 years.

      1. I managed to get mixed up there. 35 years ago was Challenger, not Columbia. Anyway, I found my copy of CAIB, Vol 1, published by Apogee Books, and “6.4 Possibility of Rescue and Repair” on page 173 covers what Mr.Kelly was talking about. Figure 6.4.1 shows and EVA with two astronauts using a ladder scavaged from the crew compartment to reach the wing and effect the “repair.’ Rescue also involved an EVA sequence since Columbia had no docking mechanism. Figure 6.4.2 shows the EVA. So obviously there was a way out of the SpaceHab, and no mention is made of blowing the crew cabin egress hatch (there weren’t enough full pressure siots for that).

  8. My own thought would be to give up trying to land the vehicle and figure out a way to get to a bailout speed and altitude.

    “Bailout speed” is subsonic, which for reentry heating/dynamics is indistinguishable from “on the ground”. If it’s going to break up before it reaches the ground, it’s going to break up before the crew can bail out without instantly dying.

  9. My understanding is, Columbia had its internal airlock installed, but I have no idea how they would have gotten out of the SpaceHab Double Module. There must have been a hatch for ground servicing in the payload bay. Since NASA actually had a plan to load plastic bags with water and steel tools, then EVA to the wing and stuff them in the hole to freeze before attempting reentry, there must have been an exit plan. There was also a contingency EVA to go outside and transit aft to the External Tank umbilical door and shut in manually in the event of a failure. Neither of these plans required the Canadarm (which was not aboard Columbia). I don’t understand why they didn’t give it a try, even if they didn’t want to risk Atlantis. Try something. Anything. Rather than deciding to send them to their deaths unawares.

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