Twenty years later, loss of space shuttle Columbia still teaches us lessons
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Tucked away in a quiet corner of NASA's Johnson Space Center, dozens of trees form a circular grove to honor late astronauts and other figures critical to the space enterprise.
Each tree in the Memorial Grove represents someone. But the ones that stand for the crew of space shuttle Columbia, lost during atmospheric re-entry 20 years ago, are starting to take on the look of maturity and wisdom that come with their blooming canopies.
That fact wasn't lost on those who visited the center in Houston, Texas, last week to honor Columbia's crew: Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon. Nor was it lost on Sean O'Keefe, NASA's administrator in 2003, who was also there during the agency's annual Day of Remembrance to honor all who died in spaceflight tragedies.
"You look out there and you see all these trees are getting pretty mature," O'Keefe, now a professor at Syracuse University in New York, told FLORIDA TODAY. "They've been there a while. That wasn't lost on anybody, even the folks who had nothing to do with any of those accidents."
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The first few weeks of the year have historically been a period of pain for spaceflight. On Jan. 27, 1967, three Apollo 1 astronauts were killed on the pad when a fire broke out in their capsule; seven space shuttle Challenger astronauts were lost during a catastrophic launch failure on Jan. 28, 1986; and then Columbia's breakup over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003.
Looking forward, O'Keefe and other NASA officials who were on duty in 2003 naturally agree that remembering the tragedies is crucial not only to saving lives, but to the overall mission of exploration itself. It's a sentiment that takes on even more importance when considering Florida continues to break flight cadence records every year, sending more and more payloads – and people – to orbit as part of an overall strategy that looks to the moon and, someday, Mars.
"Looking around, talking to lots of folks, and it struck me: I thought, 'This is a good thing,'" O'Keefe said of the ceremony in Houston. "To remind everybody what this means is exactly what we had in mind."
Talk to anyone who was at Kennedy Space Center that day about Columbia's fateful return — NASA officials, astronauts, engineers, politicians, spectators — and most will recount their experience from the same point: waiting to hear the shuttle's signature sonic booms that never came.
"I watched the de-orbit burn from my console in the Launch Control Center and that went fine," said Mike Leinbach, who was NASA's shuttle launch director in 2003. "We didn't hear the booms at three minutes and 15 seconds prior to landing. The big countdown clock between us and the runway itself kicked down to zero and Columbia wasn't there."
"We just didn't know where it was," Leinbach told FLORIDA TODAY. "It was just an awful feeling of emptiness knowing that the astronauts couldn't have survived because they had to land here and couldn't go anywhere else. But it just wasn't there."
Leinbach and other officials, knowing the strict timing of shuttle milestones meant the crew couldn't possibly just be delayed, drove back to the LCC from the Shuttle Landing Facility. They were scrambling to put together a plan; no one had considered a landing mishap of this magnitude.
"Calling it a plan is generous," Leinbach said. "We were just scrambling for what to do. The first thing that Sean O'Keefe, our administrator, did was he called President Bush ... and Bush's first question was, 'Where are the families?'"
The families and friends of the seven astronauts, of course, were waiting to see Columbia's landing from bleachers near the runway. Leinbach and O'Keefe said the families were quickly put on buses and taken to crew quarters where they would have privacy.
Leinbach and other officials then gathered in his office in the LCC, where they eventually saw confirmation: a CNN feed showing streaks of debris across the sky. Columbia's 17-day science mission in Earth orbit had ended with thousands of pieces of debris – just a fraction of the orbiter's total mass – falling over Texas.
"We never thought we'd have a landing incident, much less what actually occurred. We practiced landing mishaps where the ship might have blown a tire and run off the edge of the runway, but nothing like this," Leinbach said.
In total, NASA said it spent months recovering some 85,000 pieces of debris that were shipped back to KSC. They accounted for over one-third of the orbiter.
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Roughly six months later, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, or CAIB, would provide some long-needed answers in its final report. But many had already known early in the investigation that foam insulation broke off from the shuttle's external tank during liftoff on January 16, 2003, and struck the leading edge of the orbiter's left wing, damaging tiles that were designed to act in unison as a heat shield. That damage, the investigation found, is what allowed superheated atmospheric gases to infiltrate the shield and cause the breakup over Texas.
Bob Cabana, a former shuttle astronaut himself and current associate administrator of NASA, recalled his friendships with the Columbia crew during last week's Day of Remembrance ceremony at the KSC Visitor Complex:
Husband, commander: "Rick Husband was one of the finest Christian men I've ever known. Prior to walking out of the suit room, he gathered the whole crew together – Christian, Hindu, Jew – and they circled arms and they prayed before they got into the van to go out to the launch pad."
McCool, pilot: "He was No. 2 in his class at the Naval Academy. Technically sharp and probably one of the nicest guys I've ever known."
Anderson, payload commander: "Air Force test pilot with two of the cutest daughters you've ever seen, now fine young women. What a really nice guy he was. He loved that Audi TT he drove. Just a really, really fine gentleman."
Brown, mission specialist: "Flight surgeon, naval aviator, astronaut. What a great guy he was. He was my go-to guy for anything that anything to do with audio equipment and TVs – he knew it all and he was on top of it."
Clark, mission specialist: "NASA flight surgeon, astronaut. Laurel had the ability to know when you were a little down and things weren't right and she could always make you smile. She wore the wildest socks all the time. She was just awesome."
Chawla, mission specialist: "Kalpana was so much fun. What an amazing, smart woman, but what a really nice person, too."
Ramon, payload specialist: "What I remember most about Ilan was his infectious smile. As sharp as he was, as good a man as he was, he could just absolutely bring a smile to your face. He was a pleasure to talk to and to work with."
"I'm never going to forget them," Cabana said.
Remembering starts now
The space shuttle's thermal protection system, made up of thousands of tiles, was almost a program in and of itself. Depending on location on the orbiter, their materials were customized to handle different types of loads and heat. They were serialized and cataloged, varied in size and thickness, and were the last line of defense between the astronauts and searing temperatures that reached 3,000 degrees during atmospheric re-entry.
The tiles were one of the space shuttle's most visible, well-known characteristics. And they were cutting-edge technology. But damages that occurred during liftoff, though accepted later in the shuttle program, were never part of the original plan. In fact, early documentation made it abundantly clear: do not, under any circumstances, damage tiles.
"We wrote the specifications on the tiles and said there should never be damage to a tile. Never damage a tile, never touch a tile," Leinbach recalled. "And yet after each flight, we had over 100 dings. We used to produce a map of where all the dings on the tiles were."
That change from the original plan is commonly cited at Day of Remembrance ceremonies every year. Often referred to as "normalization of deviance," the story of overconfidence in the protective system used by the shuttle – and willingness to accept damages with the hopes of repairing them and then flying again – can likely be heard in engineering classrooms around the world.
And that, according to Leinbach and O'Keefe, is a good thing. As commercial space companies like SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and dozens of others come online, Florida's Space Coast is expecting to host hundreds of launches in the coming years. The Space Force, which oversees Florida launch activities regardless of mission type, is expecting up to 92 launches in 2023 alone. The Space Coast would have been lucky to see 20 launches just five years ago.
"There's no doubt in my mind that SpaceX learns something new about their vehicle every time it flies and comes back to land (either on a drone ship or at Cape Canaveral)," Leinbach said, adding that this period of transition to commercial space activities mirrors the early days of aviation. In fact, shuttle was envisioned as a program that would do exactly what SpaceX is doing today.
"We actually hired executives from the old Eastern Airlines ... to bring them in to the ground processing organization to try to get that airliner kind of turnaround mentality. It was a good idea, but didn't work because shuttle needed so much work on the ground before flight," Leinbach said.
There's no doubt that companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others that fly the same hardware multiple times have encountered situations where deviations from the plan would have made things faster, cheaper, or more effective. While it might be the right choice in some situations, it can't be done without keeping incidents like Columbia in mind.
"Where we are is an important phase to recognize," O'Keefe said. "We're still in the age of sail. We're still trying to get to the age of steam on figuring out how to get off this rock and into space to discover anything."
But future stages are coming, especially now that NASA's new, moon-focused Artemis program is off and running with a successful first mission under its belt. A mix of commercial and government missions made possible by hundreds of contractors and companies is bringing that exponential growth sooner rather than later.
Columbia hardware still teaching lessons
KSC's iconic Vehicle Assembly Building is known as the home of history-making vehicles like Saturn V, space shuttle, and now the Artemis program's Space Launch System rocket. One room on the 16th floor of the massive building, however, has a different purpose: remembering Columbia.
Often referred to as the "Columbia room," the 7,000-square-foot Columbia Research and Preservation room houses the orbiter's thousands of recovered pieces. All told, they weigh some 80,000 pounds.
But the room isn't inaccessible or closed off. In fact, representatives from countless industries have visited the room to learn its lessons. They still do.
"We have Columbia preserved and accessible for the future," said Mike Ciannilli, a former shuttle program worker who now leads NASA’s Apollo, Challenger, Columbia Lessons Learned Program. "My concept there was to ... share the lessons of our past to focus on our future mission success."
Ciannilli starts off with a multimedia presentation and short film as a way to bring visitors back to 2003. It creates a personal connection with the crew, he says, and the tour becomes something of a storytelling experience. While discussing some of the thousands of pieces of debris, Ciannilli will draw parallels to the visitors' interests: what can they learn? How can they change their processes? How can operations be more robust to improve communications and protect from that normalization of deviance?
Ciannilli and his team have shown the Columbia room to commercial space executives and engineers, political leaders, and even representatives from unrelated industries. In fact, Columbia's lessons are just as important to leadership operating outside the space realm.
"Seventy to 75% of who we interact with now is outside of aerospace altogether. We're collaborating with all kinds of sectors: the medical community, energy sector, construction, transportation, the sporting industry," Ciannilli said. "It's really an honor and something I think pretty powerful to be able to do that."
The experience is especially personal for Ciannilli, who was at KSC the day Columbia was supposed to return and now, 20 years later, is literally surrounded by its lessons. The mission goes on.
"I always tell the younger folks when we have new employees and teams coming in, 'Never underestimate the amazingly valuable contribution you're going to make. You may not have been here a long time or have vast knowledge built up yet, but that will come with time,’" he said.
"But don't underestimate the power of asking those seemingly simple, innocent questions. That's either going to flush out things that shouldn't be happening or it's going to make us understand if we are really doing what's best."
Contact Emre Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @EmreKelly.
All names on the Space Mirror Memorial at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, which honors fallen astronauts:
Theodore Freeman (T-38 crash)
Charles Bassett (T-38 crash)
Elliott See (T-38 crash)
Clifton Williams (T-38 crash)
Virgil "Gus" Grissom (Apollo 1 fire)
Edward White (Apollo 1 fire)
Roger Chaffee (Apollo 1 fire)
Michael Adams (X-15 crash)
Robert Lawrence (F-104 crash)
Francis Scobee (Challenger)
Michael Smith (Challenger)
Judith Resnik (Challenger)
Ellison Onizuka (Challenger)
Ronald McNair (Challenger)
Gregory Jarvis (Challenger)
Christa McAuliffe (Challenger)
Manley "Sonny" Carter (Airliner crash)
Rick Husband (Columbia)
William McCool (Columbia)
Laurel Clark (Columbia)
Michael Anderson (Columbia)
Kalpana Chawla (Columbia)
David Brown (Columbia)
Ilan Ramon (Columbia)
Michael T. Alsbury (Virgin Galactic's VSS Enterprise)
This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Space shuttle Columbia disaster teaches lessons on 20th anniversary