Columbia's Last Flight

The inside story of the investigation—and the catastrophe it laid bare

Space flight is known to be a risky business, but during the minutes before dawn last February 1, as the doomed shuttle Columbia began to descend into the upper atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean, only a handful of people—a few engineers deep inside of NASA—worried that the vehicle and its seven souls might actually come to grief. It was the responsibility of NASA's managers to hear those suspicions, and from top to bottom they failed. After the fact, that's easy to see. But in fairness to those whose reputations have now been sacrificed, seventeen years and eighty-nine shuttle flights had passed since the Challenger explosion, and within the agency a new generation had risen that was smart, perhaps, but also unwise—confined by NASA's walls and routines, and vulnerable to the self-satisfaction that inevitably had set in.

Moreover, this mission was a yawn—a low-priority "science" flight forced onto NASA by Congress and postponed for two years because of a more pressing schedule of construction deliveries to the International Space Station. The truth is, it had finally been launched as much to clear the books as to add to human knowledge, and it had gone nowhere except into low Earth orbit, around the globe every ninety minutes for sixteen days, carrying the first Israeli astronaut, and performing a string of experiments, many of which, like the shuttle program itself, seemed to suffer from something of a make-work character—the examination of dust in the Middle East (by the Israeli, of course); the ever popular ozone study; experiments designed by schoolchildren in six countries to observe the effect of weightlessness on spiders, silkworms, and other creatures; an exercise in "astroculture" involving the extraction of essential oils from rose and rice flowers, which was said to hold promise for new perfumes; and so forth. No doubt some good science was done too—particularly pertaining to space flight itself—though none of it was so urgent that it could not have been performed later, under better circumstances, in the under-booked International Space Station. The astronauts aboard the shuttle were smart and accomplished people, and they were deeply committed to human space flight and exploration. They were also team players, by intense selection, and nothing if not wise to the game. From orbit one of them had radioed, "The science we're doing here is great, and it's fantastic. It's leading-edge." Others had dutifully reported that the planet seems beautiful, fragile, and borderless when seen from such altitudes, and they had expressed their hopes in English and Hebrew for world peace. It was Miracle Whip on Wonder Bread, standard NASA fare. On the ground so little attention was being paid that even the radars that could have been directed upward to track the Columbia's re-entry into the atmosphere—from Vandenberg Air Force Base, or White Sands Missile Range—were sleeping. As a result, no radar record of the breakup exists—only of the metal rain that drifted down over East Texas, and eventually came into the view of air-traffic control.

Along the route, however, stood small numbers of shuttle enthusiasts, who had gotten up early with their video cameras and had arrayed themselves on hills or away from city lights to record the spectacle of what promised to be a beautiful display. The shuttle came into view, on track and on schedule, just after 5:53 Pacific time, crossing the California coast at about 15,000 mph in the superthin air 230,000 feet above the Russian River, northwest of San Francisco. It was first picked up on video by a Lockheed engineer in suburban Fairfield, who recorded a bright meteor passing almost directly overhead, not the shuttle itself but the sheath of hot gases around it, and the long, luminous tail of ionized air known as plasma. Only later, after the engineer heard about the accident on television, did he check his tape and realize that he had recorded what appeared to be two pieces coming off the Columbia in quick succession, like little flares in its wake. Those pieces were recorded by others as well, along with the third, fourth, and fifth "debris events" that are known to have occurred during the sixty seconds that it took the shuttle to cross California. From the top of Mount Hamilton, southeast of San Francisco, another engineer, the former president of the Peninsula Astronomical Society, caught all five events on tape but, again, did not realize it until afterward. He later said, "I'd seen four re-entries before this one. When we saw it, we did note that it was a little brighter and a little bit whiter in color than it normally is. It's normally a pink-magenta color. But you know, it wasn't so different that it really flagged us as something wrong. With the naked eye we didn't see the particles coming off."

One minute after the Columbia left California, as it neared southwestern Utah, the trouble was becoming more obvious to observers on the ground. There had been a bright flash earlier over Nevada, and now debris came off that was large enough to cause multiple secondary plasma trails. North of the Grand Canyon, in Saint George, Utah, a man and his grown son climbed onto a ridge above the county hospital, hoping for the sort of view they had seen several years before, of a fireball going by. It was a sight they remembered as "really neat." This time was different, though. The son, who was videotaping, started yelling, "Jesus, Dad, there's stuff falling off!" and the father saw it too, with his naked eyes.

The Columbia was flying on autopilot, as is usual, and though it continued to lay flares in its wake, the astronauts aboard remained blissfully unaware of the trouble they were in. They passed smoothly into dawn above the Arizona border, and sailed across the Navajo reservation and on over Albuquerque, before coming to the Texas Panhandle on a perfect descent profile, slowing through 13,400 mph at 210,000 feet five minutes after having crossed the California coastline. Nineteen seconds later, at 7:58:38 central time, they got the first sign of something being a little out of the ordinary: it was a cockpit indication of low tire pressures on the left main landing gear. This was not quite a trivial matter. A blown or deflated main tire would pose serious risks during the rollout after landing, including loss of lateral control and the possibility that the nose would slam down, conceivably leading to a catastrophic breakup on the ground. These scenarios were known, and had been simulated and debated in the inner world of NASA, leading some to believe that the best of the imperfect choices in such a case might be for the crew to bail out—an alternative available only below 30,000 feet and 220 mph of dynamic airspeed.

Nonetheless, for Columbia's pilots it was reasonable to assume for the moment that the indication of low pressure was due to a problem with the sensors rather than with the tires themselves, and that the teams of Mission Control engineers at NASA's Johnson Space Center, in Houston, would be able to sort through the mass of automatically transmitted data—the so-called telemetry, which was far more complete than what was available in the cockpit—and to draw the correct conclusion. The reverse side of failures in a machine as complex as the shuttle is that most of them can be worked around, or turn out to be small. In other words, there was no reason for alarm. After a short delay the Columbia's commander, Rick Husband, calmly radioed to Mission Control, "And, ah, Houston ..." Sheathed in hot atmospheric gases, the shuttle was slowing through 13,100 mph at 205,000 feet.

Houston did not clearly hear the call.

With the scheduled touchdown now only about fifteen minutes ahead, it was a busy time at Mission Control. Weather reports were coming in from the landing site at the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida. Radar tracking of the shuttle, like the final accurate ground-based navigation, had not yet begun. Sitting at their specialized positions, and monitoring the numbers displayed on the consoles, a few of the flight controllers had begun to sense, just barely, that something was going seriously wrong. The worry was not quite coherent yet. One of the controllers later told me that it amounted to an inexplicable bad feeling in his gut. But it was undeniable nonetheless. For the previous few minutes, since about the time when the shuttle had passed from California to Nevada, Jeff Kling, an engineer who was working the mechanical-systems position known as MMACS (pronounced Macs), had witnessed a swarm of erratic indications and sensor failures. The pattern was disconcerting because of the lack of common circuitry that could easily explain the pattern of such failures—a single box that could be blamed.

Kling had been bantering good-naturedly on an intercom with one of his team, a technician sitting in one of the adjoining back rooms and monitoring the telemetry, when the technician noted a strange failure of temperature transducers on a hydraulic return line. The technician said, "We've had some hydraulic 'ducers go off-scale low."

Kling had seen the same indications. He said, "Well, I guess!"

The technician said, "What in the world?"

Kling said, "This is not funny. On the left side."

The technician confirmed, "On the left side ..."

Now Kling got onto the main control-room intercom to the lead controller on duty, known as the flight director, a man named Leroy Cain. In the jargon-laced language of the control room Kling said, "Flight, Macs."

Cain said, "Go ahead, Macs."

"FYI, I've just lost four separate temperature transducers on the left side of the vehicle, hydraulic return temperatures. Two of them on system one, and one in each of systems two and three."

Cain said, "Four hyd return temps?"

Kling answered, "To the left outboard and left inboard elevon."

"Okay, is there anything common to them? DSC or MDM or anything? I mean, you're telling me you lost them all at exactly the same time?"

"No, not exactly. They were within probably four or five seconds of each other."

Cain struggled to assess the meaning. "Okay, where are those ... where is that instrumentation located?"

Kling continued to hear from his back-room team. He said, "All four of them are located in the aft part of the left wing, right in front of the elevons ... elevon actuators. And there is no commonality."

Cain repeated, "No commonality."

But all the failing instruments were in the left wing. The possible significance of this was not lost on Cain: during the launch a piece of solid foam had broken off from the shuttle's external fuel tank, and at high speed had smashed into the left wing; after minimal consideration the shuttle program managers (who stood above Mission Control in the NASA hierarchy) had dismissed the incident as essentially unthreatening. Like almost everyone else at NASA, Cain had taken the managers at their word—and he still did. Nonetheless, the strange cluster of left-wing failures was an ominous development. Kling had more-specific reasons for concern. In a wonkish, engineering way he had discussed with his team the telemetry they might observe if a hole allowed hot gases into the wing during re-entry, and had come up with a profile eerily close to what was happening now. Still, he maintained the expected detachment.

Cain continued to worry the problem. He asked for reassurance from his "guidance, navigation, and control" man, Mike Sarafin. "Everything look good to you, control and rates and everything is nominal, right?"

Sarafin said, "Control's been stable through the rolls that we've done so far, Flight. We have good trims. I don't see anything out of the ordinary."

Cain directed his attention back to Kling: "All other indications for your hydraulic systems indications are good?"

"They're all good. We've had good quantities all the way across."

Cain said, "And the other temps are normal?"

"The other temps are normal, yes, sir." He meant only those that the telemetry allowed him to see.

Cain said, "And when you say you lost these, are you saying they went to zero ..."

"All four of them are off-scale low."

"... or off-scale low?"

Kling said, "And they were all staggered. They were, like I said, within several seconds of each other."

Cain said, "Okay."

But it wasn't okay. Within seconds the Columbia had crossed into Texas and the left-tire-pressure indications were dropping, as observed also by the cockpit crew. Kling's informal model of catastrophe had predicted just such indications, whether from blown tires or wire breaks. The end was now coming very fast.

Kling said, "Flight, Macs."

Cain said, "Go."

"We just lost tire pressure on the left outboard and left inboard, both tires."

Cain said, "Copy."

At that moment, twenty-three seconds after 7:59 local time, the Mission Control consoles stopped receiving telemetry updates, for reasons unknown. The astronaut sitting beside Cain, and serving as the Mission Control communicator, radioed, "And Columbia, Houston, we see your tire-pressure messages, and we did not copy your last call."

At the same time, on the control-room intercom, Cain was talking again to Kling. He said, "Is it instrumentation, Macs? Gotta be."

Kling said, "Flight, Macs, those are also off-scale low."

From the speeding shuttle Rick Husband—Air Force test pilot, religious, good family man, always wanted to be an astronaut—began to answer the communicator. He said, "Roger, ah," and was cut off on a word that began with "buh ..."

It turned out to be the Columbia's last voice transmission. Brief communication breaks, however, are not abnormal during re-entries, and this one raised no immediate concern in Houston.

People on the ground in Dallas suddenly knew more than the flight controllers in Houston. Four seconds after eight they saw a large piece leave the orbiter and fall away. The shuttle was starting to come apart. It continued intermittently to send telemetry, which though not immediately displayed at Mission Control was captured by NASA computers and later discovered; the story it told was that multiple systems were failing. In quick succession two additional chunks fell off.

Down in the control room Cain said, "And there's no commonality between all these tire-pressure instrumentations and the hydraulic return instrumentations?"

High in the sky near Dallas the Columbia's main body began to break up. It crackled and boomed, and made a loud rumble.

Kling said, "No, sir, there's not. We've also lost the nose-gear down talkback, and right-main-gear down talkback."

"Nose-gear and right-main-gear down talkbacks?"

"Yes, sir."

At Fort Hood, Texas, two Dutch military pilots who were training in an Apache attack helicopter locked on to the breakup with their optics and videotaped three bright objects—the main rocket engines—flying eastward in formation, among other, smaller pieces and their contrails.

Referring to the loss of communications, one minute after the main-body breakup, Laura Hoppe, the flight controller responsible for the communications systems, said to Cain, "I didn't expect, uh, this bad of a hit on comm."

Cain asked another controller about a planned switchover to a ground-based radio ahead, "How far are we from UHF? Is that two-minute clock good?"

Kling, also, was hanging on to hope. He said, "Flight, Macs."

Cain said, "Macs?"

Kling said, "On the tire pressures, we did see them go erratic for a little bit before they went away, so I do believe it's instrumentation."

"Okay."

At about that time the debris began to hit the ground. It fell in thousands of pieces along a swath ten miles wide and 300 miles long, across East Texas and into Louisiana. There were many stories later. Some of the debris whistled down through the leaves of trees and smacked into a pond where a man was fishing. Another piece went right through a backyard trampoline, evoking a mother's lament: "Those damned kids ..." Still another piece hit the window of a moving car, startling the driver. The heaviest parts flew the farthest. An 800-pound piece of engine hit the ground in Fort Polk, Louisiana, doing 1,400 mph. A 600-pound piece landed nearby. Thousands of people began to call in, swamping the 911 dispatchers with reports of sonic booms and metal falling out of the sky. No one, however, was hit. This would be surprising were it not for the fact, so visible from above, that the world is still a sparsely populated place.

In Houston the controllers maintained discipline, and continued preparing for the landing, even as they received word that the Merritt Island radar, in Florida, which should by now have started tracking the inbound craft, was picking up only false targets. Shuttles arrive on time or they don't arrive at all. But, repeatedly, the communicator radioed, "Columbia, Houston, UHF comm check," as if he might still hear a reply. Then, at thirteen minutes past the hour, precisely when the Columbia should have been passing overhead the runway before circling down for a landing at the Kennedy Space Center, a phone call came in from an off-duty controller who had just seen a video broadcast by a Dallas television station of multiple contrails in the sky. When Cain heard the news, he paused, and then put the contingency plan into effect. To the ground-control officer he said, "GC, Flight."

"Flight, GC."

"Lock the doors."

"Copy."

The controllers were stunned, but lacked the time to contemplate the horror of what had just happened. Under Cain's direction they set about collecting numbers, writing notes, and closing out their logs, for the investigation that was certain to follow. The mood in the room was somber and focused. Only the most basic facts were known: the Columbia had broken up at 200,000 feet doing 12,738 mph, and the crew could not possibly have survived. Ron Dittemore, the shuttle program manager, would be talking to reporters later that day, and he needed numbers and information. At some point sandwiches were brought in and consumed. Like the priests who harvest faith at the bedsides of the dying, grief counselors showed up too, but they were not much used.

Cain insisted on control-room discipline. He said, "No phone calls off site outside of this room. Our discussions are on these loops—the recorded DVIS loops only. No data, no phone calls, no transmissions anywhere, into or out."

Later this was taken by some critics to be a typical NASA reaction—insular, furtive, overcontrolling. And it may indeed have reflected certain aspects of what had become of the agency's culture. But it was also, more simply, a rule-book procedure meant to stabilize and preserve the crucial last data. The room was being frozen as a crime scene might be. Somewhere inside NASA something had obviously gone very wrong—and it made sense to start looking for the evidence here and now.

Presented by

William Langewiesche

"Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria." With those words, typed on plain white bond, William Langewiesche introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Although neither piece quite stood on its own, the editors were drawn to the unusual grace and power of Langewiesche's writing and sent him on assignment to North Africa for a more ambitious piece of reporting. The result was the November 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme"—his first article to appear in a general-interest magazine. (He had, however, written frequently for aviation magazines; he is a professional pilot and first sat at the controls of an airplane at the age of five.) Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects and published four more books.

A large part of Mr. Langewiesche's reporting experience centers around the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, reporting on such topics as the implementation of the shari'a in Sudan under Hassan al-Tarabi, North Africa's Islamic culture, and the American occupation of Iraq. Other recent assignments have taken him to Egypt, the Balkans, India, and Central and South America. In 2004 he won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

In 2002 his book American Ground: Unbuilding The World Trade Center was published. It is based on a series of three cover stories he wrote for The Atlantic as the only American reporter granted full access to the World Trade Center clean-up effort. His latest book, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, was published in May 2004.

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