THE DEATH OF COLUMBIA
Excerpt From Sixteen Minutes From Home: The Columbia
Space Shuttle Tragedy (AMI Books)

Their final day in space started extremely well for Columbia’s
tight-knit, seven-member crew. They were awakened to the
strains of Scotland the Brave, performed by the 51st Highland
Brigade, in honor of Mission Specialist Laurel Clark, who was of
Scottish descent. A different song is played each morning, often
one of significance to a particular crew member. The previous
day the crew had awoken to Shalom Lach Eretz Nehederet in
honor of Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon, a revered war hero in
his native Israel and the first Israeli astronaut.

Mission Control greeted the astronauts that Saturday with a
cheerful “good morning” and Clark answered: “Good morning,
Houston. We’re getting ready for our big day up here...I’m really
excited to come back home. Hearing that song reminded me of
all the different places down on Earth and all the friends and
family that I have all over the world.”

The chores of the morning, though relatively simple, were time
consuming. After crawling out of the sleep supports that kept
them stationary in zero gravity and downing a quick breakfast,
they stowed their remaining equipment, a process that took
nearly six hours. Their mission complete, they then fastened
themselves into their seats, held firm by straps that were
specially designed to protect them during the tricky
maneuvering of re-entry. On the flight deck were Commander
Rick Husband, Pilot William McCool, Mission Specialist Kalpana
Chawla and Clark. Enjoying the loud, bumpy ride on the deck
below were Ramon, Payload Commander Michael Anderson
and Mission Specialist David Brown.

No one aboard the orbiter or at Mission Control in Houston had
reason to believe that this re-entry would be any different from
the previous 111 shuttle flights, 27 of which had been made by
the 22-year-old Columbia, the first and perhaps the most
stalwart of NASA’s shuttle fleet. After all, nothing had ever gone
wrong during a shuttle return – the only other disaster in the
program’s history, the destruction of the shuttle Challenger in
January 1986, had occurred 73 seconds after liftoff.

Before that horrifying event, NASA had boldly claimed that the
chances of a deadly shuttle accident were just 1 in 100,000.
After Challenger, the risk ratio increased dramatically to 1 in
148. However, many NASA employees said anonymously that
the risk is almost certainly even higher, perhaps 1 in 75. The
reason is simple: space shuttles are astonishingly complicated
vehicles with more than 2.5 million parts. The ships contain a
wealth of failsafes, back-ups and systems checks, but it’s
virtually impossible to verify the integrity of every single
component before each flight. Every member of NASA’s
astronaut corps – the unique men and women who possess
what writer Tom Wolfe called “the right stuff” – knows and
understands these risks, and accepts them without comment.
They often say things to friends and family like, “If I have to die,
I hope it’s doing what I love the most – sailing through the
heavens, being an astronaut.”

As the crew of STS-107 completed their final chores, Columbia
flew over the Earth at an altitude of more than 200 miles at
approximately 20 times the speed of sound. Occasionally the
astronauts took a moment to gaze out of a window at the
brilliant blues and browns and greens of the planet below them.
Kalpana Chawla, who was on her second shuttle mission and
had logged an impressive total of 6.5 million miles in space,
commented about the majestic Himalayan Mountains that grace
her native India. It was an awe-inspiring sight, and one of the
last images of Earth that Chawla saw before she died.

At approximately 7 a.m. Eastern Standard Time the astronauts
finished the last systems checks in the crew module and
confirmed that the ship was in the correct position for re-entry.
Their final destination was Cape Canaveral, Florida which, at
that particular moment, was still blanketed in light morning fog.
Visibility was poor, but NASA officials were confident that the
mist would burn away well before Columbia’s arrival two hours
later. In fact, agency meteorologists were predicting a gorgeous
day, just as it had been when Columbia lifted off 16 days before.

At 8:15 a.m. EST, over the Indian Ocean at an altitude of 176
miles, Commander Husband and Pilot McCool were given
approval by Mission Control for a braking maneuver known as
the de-orbit burn. At the time, Columbia was flying upside down
and backward. (To the astronauts, however, the position of the
craft meant nothing; in the weightlessness of space, there is no
up or down.) Given the go ahead, several rockets were fired to
slow the speeding craft in preparation for descent, a process
that took two minutes and 38 seconds. The shuttle’s computers
then slowly moved the craft around into a nose-up position for
re-entry.

Flying a shuttle during re-entry and landing is usually
uneventful, but it’s far from easy. In fact, many astronauts
compare it to flying a brick with wings. Computers guide the ship
during much of re-entry, and the pilot takes control only after
the shuttle emerges from what’s known as the plasma stage.
Maintaining control during this part of the return, even with the
assistance of computers, is tricky because the shuttle is
essentially a huge glider that requires sweeping S-turns to slow
it down. The pilot and commander must constantly monitor
dozens of dials and indicators measuring deceleration,
temperature, hydraulics and other factors to make sure the craft
is on course, flying smoothly and approaching the landing area
at just the right angle.

At around 8:45 a.m. EST, Columbia began entry interface and
penetrated the outer fringes of Earth’s atmosphere a little north
of Hawaii at an altitude of 400,000 feet, a pink glow surrounding
the craft as atmospheric friction heated her 30,000-plus
protective tiles. As the shuttle continued its rapid descent, the
glow went from pink to red to searing white. The special tiles get
so hot – almost 3,000 degrees F. in some places – that what’s
known as a plasma shield (a buffer of heated gases) surrounds
the ship, making communication with Mission Control impossible
for a brief period.

So far, everything had gone extremely smoothly. Mission
Control in Houston was pleased with Columbia’s mission, and
there was no reason to anticipate that its return home would be
anything but problem-free. At Cape Canaveral, the weather had
cleared up just as NASA meteorologists had predicted, with the
temperature in the low 70s and a light breeze at the landing
strip. As the minutes ticked down to the shuttle’s triumphant
return, the viewing stands filled with the astronauts’ excited
families and friends, NASA officials and various bigwigs, many of
whom had never witnessed a shuttle landing up close before.
Members of the shuttle pit crew were standing by to take
possession of the ship and transport it back to its hangar just as
soon as the astronauts disembarked and the cheering crowds
dispersed.

In Houston, the highly trained members of Mission Control
watched their monitors and chatted among themselves,
confident that the most difficult aspect of their job was nearly
done. Their biggest concern that day had been the weather, but
their worries had been baseless with ideal weather at Cape
Canaveral and nearly every other contingency landing strip
around the world. A few minutes more and they could log
another successful mission and begin preparing for the next
one.

The ease at Mission Control was not to last. At 8:53 a.m. EST,
as Columbia sailed over San Francisco, a data point on various
monitors began to flicker, indicating a halt in the flow of
information regarding the temperature of the hydraulic systems
in the ship’s left wing. This by itself was not a point of concern
because systems monitors routinely glitched; in fact, Mission
Control didn’t even notify the crew. But just three minutes later,
as the ship cruised over Utah, the temperature in the left
landing gear and brake lining suddenly spiked by nearly 60
degrees. Two minutes after that, three temperature sensors
buried in the skin on Columbia’s left flank went dead.

Columbia was at an altitude of approximately 40 miles and flying
at more than 18 times the speed of sound, or around 13,200
miles per hour. It was still 1,400 miles from its destination, a trip
that would have taken another 16 minutes. At that moment, the
shuttle was in a left-bank, with its wings angled at about 57
degrees to the horizontal. It was also experiencing increasing
drag on its left side, something the ship’s automatic flight control
systems were struggling to correct.

Mission controllers battled to make sense of the faltering
systems. What the hell was going on? One sensor going dead
was probably no big deal, but several in a matter of minutes
combined with the temperature spike suggested trouble. Big
trouble. Moments later, as Columbia flew over Texas at an
altitude of 207,000 feet, Spacecraft Communicator Charlie
Hobaugh radioed the crew.

“Columbia, Houston,” he said, “we see your tire-pressure
message.”

“Roger,” Commander Husband replied. “Buh...”

Commander Husband’s comment was cut off as voice
communications suddenly went dead. It was as if someone had
literally pulled the plug. Communication with the ship’s hundreds
of systems – a constant stream of technical information known
as telemetry – also ceased. By then Houston knew that
something had gone terribly wrong.

Hobaugh tried to regain contact. “Columbia, Houston,” he said.
“Com check.” Nothing but static. “Columbia, Houston. UHF com
check.” Mission controllers switched channels, hoping
desperately to hear Commander Husband’s voice. But again
they heard only static.

“Columbia, Houston,” Hobaugh called several more times. No
response. Dread set in as the reality of the situation became
apparent. In the moments that followed, the newer members of
Mission Control remained hopeful that communication could
somehow be restored, that the problem was only a minor
technical glitch; the veterans on the crew knew otherwise. The
sudden loss of crew and ship communication and the spike in
temperature on the ship’s left side could mean only one thing:
Columbia was gone. “We lost all vehicle data,” Chief Flight
Director Milt Heflin said later. “That’s when we began to know
that we had a bad day.”
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