It’s a somber time of year for the human spaceflight community. The three tragic accidents that claimed 17 NASA astronauts occurred in different years, but within a week of each other on the calendar. January 27 (Apollo 1 – 1967), January 28 (Challenger – 1986) and February 1 (Columbia – 2003) remind us of the risks of leaving earth’s grasp and the courage of the astronauts, of those who train them and guide their missions from the ground, and of their families and friends who live with the uncertainty of their occupation.
I’ve always been fascinated by human spaceflight and remember sitting on the sofa in my living room, all of five years old, watching as Neil Armstrong took that small step/giant leap onto the moon’s surface. As a young student, it was exciting to gather with school mates in the gymnasium, watching launches and splashdowns on several TV screens as the Apollo missions carried more Americans to the moon and back home again. I remember seeing reports about Skylab as a young girl, and imagining how strange it must have been to spend weeks floating around in no gravity, then come back to earth and try to walk again. Space was cool, exciting, and where we should always be, in my young mind.
I was a junior in high school when the first shuttle launched, with John Young and Robert Crippen bravely flying the first test of Columbia onto low earth orbit in 1981. I kept an eye on subsequent launches and landings the same way many Americans did – via CNN. That one winter morning in January, 1986, I was getting ready to head to my college classes and stopped to watch CNN’s coverage of the liftoff of Challenger, with teacher Christa McAuliffe on board. I sat in shock the rest of the day, forgetting all about classes, as the coverage of Challenger’s demise just 73 seconds into flight seemed like a surreal dream. Shuttle flights were grounded, and the sadness I felt lingered as we learned about the cause of the accident and the efforts to prevent it happening again.
When the shuttle program returned to flight in 1988, I was beginning my master’s degree and pretty swamped with coursework. I couldn’t follow the shuttle program quite as closely for a few years, but did keep an eye on media reports as it successfully re-established itself and powered into the 90s, carrying out amazing feats like the first Hubble servicing mission and the start of construction of the International Space Station.
Always a news junkie, CNN was my constant companion, and I especially enjoyed the coverage of space news delivered by John Holliman. Memories of Holliman’s joyous reporting on the Pathfinder mission to Mars in 1997 still make me smile to this day. His death in an auto accident in 1998 was a huge loss to those of us who appreciated his work.
Picking up the mantle for CNN’s space coverage was Miles O’Brien – smart, witty, a bit edgy and handsome, too. And, he was just as enthusiastic as Holliman. I was pleased there would continue to be space reporting on CNN by someone who was genuinely passionate about it, and not just there, reading a script in Holliman’s absence.
Cue February 1st, 2003. I knew the shuttle Columbia was scheduled to make her entry and landing that day, after waving off the day before, and I wanted to catch the coverage. Even as a kid, I was always more excited about the astronauts’ return than I was launch. All the other kids loved the smoke, steam and fire of a rocket slowly lifting from the pad, but I was a splashdown fan. Part of it was the safe return of the astronauts, for sure, but mostly, it was that they were truly different now. They had been to the moon, and had come back to talk about it. Shuttle entry/landing was even more thrilling for me – to deorbit and land, gliding like a jet with no engines and no second chance to get it right, was an amazing feat. The shuttle had to make a “Captain Sullenberger Miracle on the Hudson” landing – Every. Single. Time. I still marvel at the precision, the expertise and the technical accomplishment that represented.
On that Saturday, February 1st, Columbia was due to cross the California coast north of my home in San Francisco, but my personal line of sight would be obscured by tall buildings. So instead of venturing out, I was tuned to CNN a bit before 6 a.m., excited that Miles O’Brien would describe another mission completion. As with Challenger, I sat in disbelief as the video came in from Dallas TV of the multiple streaks of light that indicated Columbia’s breakup, just 16 minutes from her scheduled landing. Through the lens of my shock and sadness, CNN’s coverage became a strange blur, with O’Brien gathering information as he could from his sources, and occasional periods of the live NASA feed featuring PAO James Hartsfield repeating the warning for the public to avoid touching any shuttle debris they might encounter.
As the week went on after the Columbia accident, NASA released audio and then video from the flight control room during entry. Flight controllers plan and train for a mission, right along side the astronauts, for around two years before the mission is flown, and they often get to know the astronauts and their families well. Launch and landing are the most dangerous times in a spaceflight mission, and the top controllers are usually in place to handle those shifts. For all the bravery and courage of the astronauts, whom I respect immensely, it has always been flight operations and the people who work in that capacity that fascinate me most. I love to watch old video of Mission Control from the Apollo era, where the awesome Gene Kranz and his vest and flat top left a strong impression on me as a child. Later, I was thrilled the shuttle flew often so I could witness launch control prep for liftoff and then my favorites in Houston take over as the solid rocket boosters ignited. The late 90s up to the Columbia accident had the folks I followed most closely from the shuttle era – flight directors Wayne Hale, Phil Engelauf, John Shannon and LeRoy Cain were the faces of Mission Control for me. These guys adeptly shouldered the responsibility of leading the missions, in some cases even specializing in the high-risk ascent and entry phases.
Watching the video of the controllers from that awful morning, and the press conference days later with flight director LeRoy Cain, who had to be still quite numb from the experience, left a deep mark on me. Seeing the team slowly come to terms with the fact Columbia and her crew were lost, keeping their heads and locking down their data and notes while grieving the loss of those they were tasked to bring home safely, was heartbreaking. And it made me admire them even more. They knew there had been discussion earlier in the mission about foam strike on the left side of the orbiter, and had been assured by engineers and managers that analysis concluded it wasn’t a safety of flight issue. That’s the way it goes in flight operations – it’s too complex to be second-guessing everyone, so you have to trust and act. And this time, the analysis was terribly wrong. It’s tragic, but it happened and controllers had to keep their heads and do their jobs anyway. The image that, for me, has come to represent their character that morning is that of Cain, who continued to be an effective leader while grieving, issuing commands and monitoring contingency procedures with tears running down his cheeks.
Flight Director LeRoy Cain during the entry accident that claimed shuttle Columbia and her crew, February 1, 2003. Screen capture from the documentary “Beyond the Moon: Failure is not an Option Part 2.”
It’s impossible to put into words the loss felt by families of the astronauts, or to adequately portray their grace, honor and strength in moving forward, continuing to support the space program and creating good out of their personal tragedies. It would take dozens of rambling blog posts of this length to scratch the surface of their amazing character. We should hold them in highest regard and always support their efforts to remember their loved ones and bring meaning to their memories. If there are heroes in these stories, the families are those heroes.
Today, NASA is quietly gearing up for an uncertain future. There are currently no crewed missions flying on American rockets – our astronauts hitch a ride with the Russians to get to ISS. The new administration in Washington has not yet made it clear what their priorities are for NASA. We can’t say if there will be strong support for the Journey to Mars, a refocusing on a lunar presence instead, or a drastic scaling down of the agency, leaving any future human flight strictly to the private sector. It’s possible that the whims of the administration may change quickly, based on the achievements and efforts of other countries, China in particular. And there’s no telling what level of support there is in the general population. In parts of American society, there’s a growing belief that higher education, science and technology are things to distrust or are even evil. We as a nation continue to drop down the world’s list of leaders in science, math, engineering and technology education, having to import H1B workers to make up the deficit. The current administration has indicated that the number of H1B workers may be cut considerably in the future, which would only serve to increase our rate of output decline in this area. It’s an alarming time to be an American spaceflight fan, or a believer in the value of research, exploration and education in general.
For all the insistence of the existence of American exceptionalism, we’ve too often proven to be surprisingly mediocre compared to our potential on the cutting edge of research, exploration and innovation. The best way to honor those we’ve lost in spaceflight would be to push on, explore purely for the multitude of benefits it brings us, and stop letting our space program be directed and funded in fits and starts, based on short-term military, political or commercial gains. Given the current environment, it’s hard to see a future in which that happens. Our astronauts, engineers and scientists, both living and gone from us, deserve much better…and so do we as a nation.