Bringing Columbia Home
Michael Leinbach & Jonathan Ward, Central, 363.124 L5311b 2018
I watched the Columbia space shuttle's first launch from the press area of the Kennedy Space Center on 12 April 1981, and was at Edwards to watch it land on 14 April (sadly, my poor hearing and vision prevented me from actually seeing or hearing anything ). The night of 9 April before the first launch attempt on 10 April, I snagged a seat on the night press tour bus of Pad 39A, which drove right up next to the launch platform.
I was horrified to learn of the launch failure of Challenger in 1986; the fatal reentry of Columbia's STS-107 mission on February 1 2003 was even more horrible. The space shuttle was a terrible design, and hopefully a lesson for the future. Solid rockets may have a place an ICBM rocket, but are a really stupid first stage for a pad-launched space rocket, and were used primarily so that Senator Jake Garn could funnel money to Thiokol (now ATK) in his home state of Utah. Thiokol's solids are messy, poisonous, heavy and expensive, and were segmented for rail transport, resulting in the joint failure that destroyed Challenger.
The shuttle had wings, providing the dubious advantage of runway landing. That meant carrying tonnes of wings and wheels to orbit. It also meant the shuttle had to be side-mounted on the stack, and exposed to foam strikes from the external tank. A foam strike nearly destroyed Atlantis; that narrow escape from disaster "taught" NASA that they were disaster-proof, rather than forcing a system redesign. The foam strike was blamed on bad foam attachment. In actual fact (as the book points out), moisture collected under the foam on the nose, froze, and detached it. Poor design and arrogant engineers killed Columbia and the STS-107 crew.
!SpaceX taught us that we can land boosters. The !SpaceX Dragon capsule lands in the ocean, like Mercury/Gemini/Apollo. In the long run, it may be safer and cheaper to capture the parachute-descending capsules in midair with a StratoCatcher, repurposed Stratolaunch aircraft. Landing on a runway is meant to suggest a landing anywhere; however, hundreds of kilograms of toxic hypergolic maneuvering system propellants onboard the Shuttle would restrict landing sites to military landing fields far from cities.
Author Michael Leinbach joined NASA in 1984. Leinbach was the launch director for STS-107 Columbia, and was waiting near the runway where Columbia was scheduled to land around 9:15 am EST. Instead, they lost contact with Columbia at 8:59:32. At 9:05, there was a tremendous sonic boom over Sabine County Texas, followed by rumbles, popping and crackling noises from the sky.
The crew onboard were already dead, scattered to the wind.
- Mission commander: Air Force Colonel Rick Husband
Pilot: Navy test pilot Commander William "Willie" McCool
- Payload commander: Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Michael Anderson
- Flight Engineer: Kalapana "KC" Chawla PhD
- Mission Specialist: Naval flight surgeon Captain Dave Brown MD
- Brown was dating lead airframe engineer Ann Micklos; a gift watch for her flew the mission with Brown, and was recovered among the debris in Texas.
- Mission Specialist: Naval flight surgeon Commander Laurel Clarke MD
- Mission Specialist: Israeli Air Force Colonel Ilan Ramon
- p096 Map of East Texas search area. Initially a broad ellipse EES from south of Dallas, over Nacodoches, and past the Louisiana border. The final search area was east of San Augustine and just south of Hemphill.
p100+ color images. map of key debris sites, copy here
p249 Sixteen Minutes from Home video