Picking Up The Pieces

Wayne Hale recalls the aftermath of the Columbia loss:

For the second time in my NASA career, I found myself on a little rise of grass in the corner between building 16 and building 12. President Reagan had spoken facing southeast standing right in front of building 16. President Bush spoke facing southwest standing right in front of building 12. The trees were taller in 2003 than they had been in 1986. We “visiting” dignitaries from the other NASA centers were herded into a triangle of land surrounded with fake 3 foot high white picket fence to separate us from the JSC people. It was strange to shake hands or try to give a hug across that strange fence. Immediately after the ceremony we were herded back into the bus to Ellington for the flight to KSC. Never got home, never saw my family; it was the strangest day of all.

Back at KSC, I accompanied my office staff to a windswept memorial service on the SLF runway itself. Bob Crippen spoke movingly about Columbia and the loss of the vehicle as if she were a living being. It struck me that at JSC the memorial service had been about the crew and at KSC it was about the orbiter. Natural, I suppose, the crew being at home in Texas, the orbiter being ‘at home’ in Florida. Somebody said later it was a tragedy at both centers: at KSC it was as if their home had burned down, at JSC it was a death in the family; both tragedies, just different.

I took a lot of heat that week for this:

I feel for the families and friends of those who lost their lives in yesterday’s catastrophe, just as I feel for the family and friends of anyone who suffers such a loss. What I don’t feel is a personal loss, as though they were my family or friend. I didn’t know them, and neither did ninety nine percent of the American public that now grieves their loss, until yesterday.

I do personally grieve the loss of the space shuttle orbiter Columbia, because I did know it. Very few people saw it both lift off from Florida, on its maiden flight, and land in California, back in May 1981. I’m one of them.

I worked many years for the company that built it. I helped do preliminary planning for some missions for it.

I also grieve its loss as a symbol of what we might be able to accomplish in space, given sensible national space policy (a commodity that continues to remain in short supply).

The crewmembers of that flight were each unique, and utterly irreplaceable to those who knew and loved them, and are devastated by their sudden absence from their lives, and to paraphrase what the president said after September 11, seven worlds were destroyed yesterday.

But, while this may sound callous, the space program will go on just fine without them. They knew their job was hazardous, they did it anyway, and by all accounts, they died doing what they wanted, and loved, to do. There are many more astronauts in the astronaut corps who, if a Shuttle was sitting on the pad tomorrow, fueled and ready to go, would eagerly strap themselves in and go, even with the inquiry still going on, because they know that it’s flown over a hundred times without burning up on entry, and they still like the odds. And if yesterday’s events made them suddenly timorous, there is a line of a hundred people eagerly waiting to replace each one that would quit, each more than competent and adequate to the task. America, and the idea of America, is an unending cornucopia of astronaut material.

When it comes to space, hardware matters, and currently useful space hardware is a very scarce commodity. People are optional. A Shuttle can get into orbit with no crew aboard. It could return that way as well, with some minor design modifications (actuators for nose-wheel steering and brakes, and gear deployment). But no one gets to space without transportation. Many of us would walk there if we could, but we can’t.

Yesterday, we lost a quarter of our Shuttle fleet. The next time we fly, we’ll be putting at risk a third of the remainder. If we lose that one, every flight thereafter will be risking half of America’s capability to put people into orbit.

So, when I grieve the loss of Columbia, it’s not because it was just a symbol. What I truly grieve is the loss of the capability that it not just represented, but possessed. That vehicle will never again deliver a payload or a human to space. It cost billions of dollars to build, and would cost many billions and several years to replace. That was the true loss yesterday, not the crew. I think that people realize this on some level, but feel uncomfortable in articulating it.

Read the whole thing, and note that this is a theme that continues to this day, articulated most fully in my book.

2 thoughts on “Picking Up The Pieces

  1. Warren Platts

    I agree with you 100% on this one Rand…

    And I would go a bit further and agree with Mr. Crippen that there was an intrinsic value that was lost when Columbia broke up. She, he, it, was a living breathing entity, a creature of God’s own Earth….

  2. Sam Dinkin

    People tend to act as if they value their own lives at $9 million. If NASA values an astronaut life at more than a billion dollars, it will end up spending far more on safety than the astronauts would spend on themselves.

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