‘Comm Check’: Remembering Columbia’s Final Flight Home, OTD in 2003

Columbia rose to orbit on 16 January 2003. Picture Credit score: NASA

For 16 days in January 2003, the seven women and men of shuttle Columbia’s STS-107 crew—Commander Rick Husband, Pilot Willie McCool, Mission Specialists Dave Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Mike Anderson and Laurel Clark and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon of Israel—worked around-the-clock to complete 80 scientific experiments spanning a variety of disciplines from life sciences to fluid physics and from analysis to Earth observations. Eighty-seven missions after Challenger, they had serviced the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) four times, docked 9 occasions with Russia’s Mir orbital  and had begun constructing the sprawling Worldwide House Station (ISS) in low-Earth orbit.

Video Credit score: Discovery Channel, through timecapsule80s/YouTube

The shuttle remained an inherently harmful car, though the robustness of the 4 surviving orbiters—Discovery, Atlantis, Columbia herself and the “baby” of the fleet, Endeavour—had been amply demonstrated and their shortcomings had been well-understood. Or so it appeared. These shortcomings got here house to roost with horrifying suddenness on the morning of 1 February 2003.

In over 20 years of operational providers, the fleet had weathered last-second shutdowns on the launch pad, foremost engine issues during ascent and severe Thermal Protection System (TPS) damage during re-entry. And when a briefcase-sized chunk of insulating foam was noticed on the STS-107 launch video falling from the Exterior Tank (ET) at T+82 seconds and hitting Columbia’s left wing—at exactly the spot the place Bolstered Carbon Carbon (RCC) would later guard the ship towards essentially the most extreme re-entry temperatures—concern was elevated, however finally dismissed. It might show to be a dismissal as ill-judged as declaring the Titanic to be unsinkable.

Particles falls from the Exterior Tank (ET) to hit Columbia’s wing, about 82 seconds after launch. Picture Credit score: NASA

The video footage from STS-107’s launch on 16 January provided little indication of what, if any, harm the froth strike had brought on, save for an enormous bathe of particles. It was unclear if these particles originated from the affect of the froth itself or from shattered items of the RCC panels. If it was the latter, this didn’t bode effectively for Columbia’s re-entry, for the panels helped to protect the car towards the brunt of three,000-degree-Celsius (5,400-degree-Fahrenheit) extremes through the hypersonic return to Earth. Senior managers doubted {that a} foam strike—an occasion which had occurred on earlier missions—might presumably be a “security of flight” problem.

This didn’t, nevertheless, forestall an evaluation of a doable state of affairs by which the RCC had been breached. On 31 January, the day earlier than Columbia was as a result of , engineer Kevin McCluney provided a hypothetical description to his colleagues on the Johnson House Heart’s (JSC) flight management group of the form of knowledge “signature” they may count on to obtain within the occasion that the worst ought to occur.

Air Drive Maui Optical and Website (AMOS) imagery of Columbia in orbit. Picture Credit score: NASA/U.S. Air Drive

Allow us to suppose, stated McCluney—outlined in depth by Michael Cabbage and William Harwood of their harrowing account of the tragedy, Comm Examine—that a big gap had been punched by means of one of many shuttle’s RCC panels, enabling super-heated plasma to enter the airframe. “Let’s surmise,” he informed them, “what kind of signature we’d see if a restricted stream of plasma did get into the wheel effectively [of Columbia’s main landing gear], roughly from entry interface till about 200,000 toes (60 km); in different phrases, a 10–15-minute window.” Little might McCluney presumably have guessed that his “signature” would virtually precisely mirror the dreadful occasions which befell Columbia on the morning of Saturday, 1 February 2003.

“First could be a temperature rise for the tires, brakes, strut actuator, and the uplock actuator return…”

Pictured from Columbia’s aft flight deck, this view reveals the payload bay and Spacehab analysis double module. The grey-colored RCC panels lining the main edges of the wings can clearly be seen, however the affect location is out of sight. Investigators would later conclude {that a} gap, some 6-10 inches throughout, had been punched by means of the RCC throughout ascent. Picture Credit score: NASA

At 8:52:17 a.m. EST, 9 minutes after entry interface—the purpose at which the shuttle started to come across the tenuous higher traces of the “smart” ambiance—Entry Flight Director LeRoy Cain and his group noticed the primary uncommon knowledge on their displays. Cain had begun his shift on console earlier that morning, with an up-tempo “Let’s go get ’em, guys,” earlier than giving STS-107 Commander Rick Husband the go-ahead to carry out the irreversible de-orbit burn to drop Columbia out of orbit and onto an hour-long path to land on the Kennedy House Heart’s (KSC) Shuttle Touchdown Facility (SLF) at 9:16 a.m. EST.

A lot of the entry profile was managed by the shuttle’s Common Goal Computer systems (GPCs), as was regular protocol, however with 23 minutes remaining earlier than landing, Upkeep, Mechanical Arm and Crew Methods (MMACS) Officer Kling noticed one thing peculiar in his knowledge.

Rick Husband, pictured within the commander’s seat on Columbia’s flight deck throughout STS-107. Picture Credit score: NASA

It was what flight controllers termed an “off-nominal occasion”.

As later described by Cabbage and Harwood, Kling seen that two downward-pointing arrows appeared subsequent to readings from a pair of sensors deep inside Columbia’s left wing. They had been designed to measure hydraulic fluid temperatures in traces resulting in the elevons. A couple of seconds later, two extra sensors additionally failed. The eye of Kling and his group was immediately captivated; it seemed for all of the that the wiring to all 4 sensors had been lower.

They tried to fathom a typical “thread” to elucidate the fault, however none was forthcoming.

The great thing about Earth was a sight that not one of the STS-107 crew ever grew drained. Photographed by means of Columbia’s overhead flight deck home windows, this astonishing vista was captured on 22 January, six days after launch. Picture Credit score: NASA

Kling spoke on to Cain. “FYI, I’ve simply misplaced 4 separate temperature transducers on the left facet of the car,” he started, cautiously. “Hydraulic return temperatures. Two of them on System One and one in every of Methods Two and Three.”

“4 hyd return temps?” queried Cain.

“To the left outboard and left inboard elevon.”

The twin-shift nature of STS-107 required the inclusion of sleep stations in Columbia’s middeck. On this picture, Purple Crew members Laurel Clark, Rick Husband and Kalpana Chawla peek out of their bunks. Picture Credit score: NASA

Cain’s ideas mirrored these of Kling: was there a typical root trigger for all 4 sensors to have failed in such shut bodily and temporal proximity to at least one one other? When Kling asserted that there was “no commonality” between the failures, Cain was perplexed, however immediately thought again to the froth strike. In subsequent interviews, he would admit that his rapid worry was that sizzling fuel had labored its approach by means of a breach in Columbia’s left wing and was in some way affecting the inside programs.

Nevertheless, Steering, Navigation and Management Officer (GNC) Mike Sarafin assured him that total car efficiency because it crossed the California-Nevada state line at 22.5 occasions the velocity of sound remained nominal. Was Kling proud of all different hydraulic programs? Kling replied that, sure, the whole lot else was functioning usually.

As evidenced by the clock on the principle display screen at 14:15:05 GMT (9:15:05 am EST), this view of a tense Mission Management was acquired 1 / 4 of an hour after the primary signal of hassle…and a minute forward of Columbia’s anticipated touchdown. By now, everybody was conscious that every one hope was gone and contingency procedures had been in impact. Picture Credit score: NASA

“Tire pressures would rise, given sufficient time, and assuming the tires don’t get holed,” continued Kevin McCluney’s chilling prediction of what would possibly occur. “The info would begin dropping out as {the electrical} wiring is severed…”

All of a sudden, at 8:58 a.m. EST, Commander Husband made his first communication since entry interface 1 / 4 of an hour earlier. He began to name Houston, however his phrases had been abruptly lower off. A couple of seconds later got here a lack of temperature and stress knowledge from each the inboard and outboard tires of Columbia’s touchdown gear within the left effectively.

STS-107 crew members (from left) Ilan Ramon, Laurel Clark and Mike Anderson take part in an ascent simulation throughout STS-107 pre-flight coaching. Picture Credit score: NASA

If the tires had been holed or shedding stress, it was very dangerous information, for STS-107 was a “heavyweight” mission with the fully-loaded Spacehab module and experiment pallet. A “wheels-up” stomach touchdown was not anticipated to be survivable. The astronauts would wish to carry out a never-before-tried bailout, using an escape pole system carried out after Challenger, however this might not be tried till Columbia was at a lot decrease altitude and at a lot decrease relative airspeed.

“Information loss would come with that for tire pressures and temperatures, brake pressures and temperatures,” concluded McCluney.

Floor-based picture, acquired shortly earlier than the lack of radio communication with Columbia, revealed the shuttle’s early part of disintegration. Picture Credit score: NASA

After listening to Jeff Kling’s report, astronaut Charlie Hobaugh—the lead Capcom on obligation that morning and the person answerable for speaking on to the STS-107 crew—referred to as Husband to tell him of the anomalous tire stress messages. Hobaugh additionally requested Husband to repeat his final remark. There was no reply from the rapidly-descending Columbia. By now, LeRoy Cain was urgent Kling for solutions on whether or not the messages had been as a result of defective instrumentation, however was suggested that every one related sensors had been studying “off-scale-low”—that they had merely stopped working.

Seconds later, at 8:59:32 a.m., Husband tried once more to contact Mission Management. These had been to be the final phrases ever obtained from House Shuttle Columbia.

Charlie Hobaugh was on the Capcom’s console through the ill-fated return of STS-107. Picture Credit score: NASA

“Roger,” he stated, presumably acknowledging Hobaugh’s earlier stress name, “uh, buh…” At that time, abruptly, his phrases had been lower off in mid-sentence, along with the move of knowledge from the orbiter. Communications had been by no means restored. Thirty-two seconds after Husband’s partial transmission, a ground-based observer with a camcorder shot video footage of a number of particles contrails streaking like tears throughout the Texas sky.

With the telemetry thus damaged, the ambiance in Mission Management was changing into more and more uncomfortable. Kling informed Cain that there was no frequent thread between the tire stress messages and the sooner hydraulic sensor failures; furthermore, different instrumentation for monitoring the positions of the orbiter’s nostril and foremost touchdown gear had additionally been misplaced.

Video Credit score: NASA, through Matthew Travis/YouTube

Because the seconds of radio silence stretched longer, Cain requested Instrumentation and Communications Officer (INCO) Laura Hoppe how lengthy she anticipated the intermittent “comm” to final. She admitted that she anticipated some ratty comm, however was shocked and puzzled by how protracted and “strong” it was.

“Columbia, Houston, comm test,” radioed Charlie Hobaugh at 9:03 a.m. His phrases had been greeted solely by static and by the echo of his personal voice within the deathly-silent Mission Management. A minute later, he repeated the decision. Once more, there was no reply.

Tons of of balloons and floral tributes are laid outdoors the gates of the Johnson House Heart (JSC) in Houston, Texas, within the days after the tragedy. Picture Credit score: NASA

Half a continent away, at KSC, astronauts Jerry Ross and Bob Cabana had been chatting outdoors the convoy commander’s van on the SLF, after they heard that communications with Columbia had been misplaced. At first, they had been unconcerned—that’s, till they had been knowledgeable that highly effective long-range radars on the Cape, which had been presupposed to lock onto the incoming orbiter at 9:04 a.m. and monitor its remaining method, noticed nothing coming over the horizon.

In Cain’s phrases, that provided the ultimate punch-in-the-stomach affirmation that every one hope was misplaced. Columbia was gone. “That was absolutely the black-and-white finish,” he stated later. “If the radar is trying and there’s nothing coming over the horizon, the car will not be there.”

Crew walkout for STS-107. Picture Credit score: Scott Andrews/NASA

In contrast to an plane, which may its flight profile to make secondary approaches, the shuttle had just one shot to make a pinpoint touchdown. Its trajectory by means of the ambiance might be timed to the second and landing was anticipated at 9:16 a.m. Climate knowledge additionally made it doable to foretell how far down the runway—about 1,500 toes (460 meters)—the shuttle would land.

On the Cape, the assembled crowds noticed the countdown clock tick to zero…after which start ticking upwards once more as 9:16 got here and went, with no signal of Columbia. No trademark sonic booms had been heard. No signal of the tiny black-and-white dot of the orbiter had been seen. Veteran shuttle commander Steve Lindsey—later to turn out to be Chief of the Astronaut Workplace—was one of many escorts for the STS-107 households and his blood ran chilly. One thing was terribly mistaken.

Payload commander Mike Anderson was in command of the majority of the scientific analysis in STS-107’s Spacehab double module. Picture Credit score: NASA

Standing subsequent to NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe was former astronaut Invoice Readdy, now serving because the company’s Affiliate Administrator for House Flight. O’Keefe would describe the previous fighter pilot and veteran shuttle commander as ashen-faced and visibly trembling. Jerry Ross was a couple of months into his new job as head of the Cape’s Automobile Integration Take a look at Crew (VITT) and his first act was to say a quick prayer.

In Texas, police had been being inundated with 911 calls, reporting unusual lights within the sky, loud explosions, and cases of falling particles. CNN rapidly picked up on the tales and started reporting them. In Mission Management, nevertheless, televisions weren’t tuned to outdoors broadcasts. It was an off-duty NASA engineer, Michael Garske, who watched the shuttle move overhead from the roadside, south of Houston, and referred to as colleague Don McCormack in Mission Management with the information.

Laurel Clark friends by means of considered one of Columbia’s overhead flight deck home windows. Picture Credit score: NASA

“Don, Don, I noticed it,” Garske cried, paraphrased by Cabbage and Harwood in Comm Examine. “It broke up!”

“Decelerate,” McCormack replied. “What are you telling me?”

“I noticed the orbiter. It broke up!”

Egypt, the Nile River, the Sinai Peninsula and the Purple Sea, as considered from STS-107. Picture Credit score: NASA

Sitting behind LeRoy Cain on the identical time, veteran flight director Phil Engelauf obtained a name from off-duty flight director Bryan Austin, who supplied his personal first-hand testimony of Columbia’s demise throes. By this time, though nobody in Mission Management had bodily seen the proof of the catastrophe, that they had resigned themselves to it. At 9:05 a.m., Cain had requested Flight Dynamics Officer (FDO) Richard Jones when he might count on monitoring knowledge from the long-range radars in Florida. One minute in the past, got here the reply.

Now, as Engelauf relayed Austin’s emotional report back to Cain, the flight director slowly shook his head, composed himself and turned to the silent management room to declare an emergency. At 9:12 a.m., he instructed Floor Management (GC) Officer Invoice Foster to “lock the doorways”—a de facto admission that every one hope was gone—and ordered flight controllers to not depart the constructing, however to start preserving their knowledge and writing up their logbook notes to be used within the subsequent investigation. After checking with Jones that no additional monitoring had been acquired, Cain referred his group to their contingency plans; the plans that they and the STS-107 crew had labored in coaching, however which they hoped fervently would by no means be wanted.

“OK,” Cain started, “all flight controllers on the Flight loop, we have to kick off the FCOH [Flight Operations Handbook] contingency plan process, FCOH guidelines, web page 2.8-5.” He then proceeded to speak them by means of the required actions: preserving logbook entries and show printouts, speaking solely on the Flight loop and limiting outdoors phone calls and transmissions. “No telephone calls, no knowledge, in or out,” he informed them.

9 hundred miles (1,500 km) to the east, in Florida, the STS-107 households had been shepherded from the touchdown web site to the crew quarters by 9:30 a.m. It was left to Bob Cabana to interrupt the horrible information—considered one of his worst jobs in his astronaut profession. Mission Management, he defined, had not picked up any radio beacon alerts which might have been activated if the crew had managed to bail out of Columbia. Regardless, the orbiter was at an altitude of round 40 miles (64 km) and touring at practically 15,000 mph (24,000 km/h) when it disintegrated. That alone provided not even the faintest hope of being survivable.

Sixteen occasions every day, the STS-107 crew beheld the glory of an orbital dawn. Picture Credit score: NASA

Later that morning, close to Hemphill, Texas, Roger Coday discovered some human stays. He stated a quick prayer and constructed a tiny wood cross by the roadside.

It might be solely the primary of many memorials to be laid over the approaching hours, days, weeks, months, and years, to mirror upon the US’ second shuttle catastrophe, to know what had gone mistaken and to rebuild shattered desires and look once more to the long run.

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