Columbia's Last Flight

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

Less than an hour later, at 10:00 a.m. eastern time, a retired four-star admiral named Hal Gehman met his brother at a lawyer's office in Williamsburg, Virginia. At the age of sixty, Gehman was a tall, slim, silver-haired man with an unlined face and soft eyes. Dressed in civilian clothes, standing straight but not stiffly so, he had an accessible, unassuming manner that contrasted with the rank and power he had achieved. After an inauspicious start as a mediocre engineering student in the Penn State Naval ROTC program ("Top four fifths of the class," he liked to say), he had skippered a patrol boat through the thick of the Vietnam War and gone on to become an experienced sea captain, the commander of a carrier battle group, vice-chief of the Navy, and finally nato Atlantic commander and head of the U.S. Joint Forces Command. Upon his retirement, in 2000, from the sixth-ranked position in the U.S. military, he had given all that up with apparent ease. He had enjoyed a good career in the Navy, but he enjoyed his civilian life now too. He was a rare sort of man—startlingly intelligent beneath his guileless exterior, personally satisfied, and quite genuinely untroubled. He lived in Norfolk in a pleasant house that he had recently remodeled; he loved his wife, his grown children, his mother and father, and all his siblings. He had an old Volkswagen bug convertible, robin's-egg blue, that he had bought from another admiral. He had a modest thirty-four-foot sloop, which he enjoyed sailing in the Chesapeake, though its sails were worn out and he wanted to replace its icebox with a twelve-volt refrigeration unit. He was a patriot, of course, but not a reactionary. He called himself a fiscal conservative and a social moderate. His life as he described it was the product of convention. It was also the product of a strict personal code. He chose not to work with any company doing business with the Department of Defense. He liked power, but understood its limitations. He did not care to be famous or rich. He represented the American establishment at its best.

In the lawyer's office in Williamsburg his brother told him that the Columbia had been lost. Gehman had driven there with his radio off and so he had not heard. He asked a few questions, and absorbed the information without much reaction. He did not follow the space program and, like most Americans, had not been aware that a mission was under way. He spent an hour with the lawyer on routine family business. When he emerged, he saw that messages had been left on his cell phone, but because the coverage was poor, he could not retrieve them; only later, while driving home on the interstate, was he finally able to connect. To his surprise, among mundane messages he found an urgent request to call the deputy administrator of NASA, a man he had not heard of before, named Fred Gregory. Like a good American, Gehman made the call while speeding down the highway. Gregory, a former shuttle commander, said, "Have you heard the news?"

Gehman said, "Only secondhand."

Gregory filled him in on what little was known, and explained that part of NASA's contingency plan, instituted after the Challenger disaster of 1986, was the activation of a standing "interagency" investigation board. By original design the board consisted of seven high-ranking civilian and military officials who were pre-selected mechanically on the basis of job titles—the institutional slots that they filled. For the Columbia, the names were now known: the board would consist of three Air Force generals, John Barry, Kenneth Hess, and Duane Deal; a Navy admiral, Stephen Turcotte; a NASA research director, G. Scott Hubbard; and two senior civil-aviation officials, James Hallock and Steven Wallace. Though only two of these men knew much about NASA or the space shuttle, in various ways each of them was familiar with the complexities of large-scale, high-risk activities. Most of them also had strong personalities. To be effective they would require even stronger management. Gregory said that it was NASA's administrator, Sean O'Keefe, who wanted Gehman to come in as chairman to lead the work. Gehman was not immune to the compliment, but he was cautious. He had met O'Keefe briefly years before, but did not know him. He wanted to make sure he wasn't being suckered into a NASA sideshow.

O'Keefe was an able member of Washington's revolving-door caste, a former congressional staffer and budget specialist—and a longtime protégé of Vice President Dick Cheney—who through the force of his competence and Republican connections had briefly landed the position of Secretary of the Navy in the early 1990s. He had suffered academic banishment through the Clinton era, but under the current administration had re-emerged as a deputy at the Office of Management and Budget, where he had been assigned to tackle the difficult problem of NASA's cost overruns and lack of delivery, particularly in the Space Station program. It is hard to know what he thought when he was handed the treacherous position of NASA administrator. Inside Washington, NASA's reputation had sunk so low that some of O'Keefe's former congressional colleagues snickered that Cheney was trying to kill his own man off. But O'Keefe was not a space crusader, as some earlier NASA administrators had been, and he was not about to pick up the fallen banners of the visionaries and try to lead the way forward; he was a tough, level-headed money man, grounded in the realities of Washington, D.C., and sent in on a mission to bring discipline to NASA's budget and performance before moving on. NASA's true believers called him a carpetbagger and resented the schedule pressures that he brought to bear, but in fairness he was a professional manager, and NASA needed one.

O'Keefe had been at NASA for just over a year when the Columbia self-destructed. He was in Florida standing at the landing site beside one of his deputies, a former shuttle commander named William Readdy. At 9:05 eastern time, ten minutes before the scheduled landing, Readdy got word that communications with the shuttle, which had been lost, had not been re-established; O'Keefe noticed that Readdy's face went blank. At 9:10 Readdy opened a book to check a time sequence. He said, "We should have heard the sonic booms by now. There's something really wrong." By 9:29 O'Keefe had activated the full-blown contingency plan. When word got to the White House, the executive staff ducked quickly into defensive positions: President Bush would grieve alongside the families and say the right things about carrying on, but rather than involving himself by appointing an independent presidential commission, as Ronald Reagan had in response to the Challenger accident, he would keep his distance by expressing faith in NASA's ability to find the cause. In other words, this baby was going to be dropped squarely onto O'Keefe's lap. The White House approved Gehman's appointment to lead what would essentially be NASA's investigation—but O'Keefe could expect little further communication. There was a chance that the President would not even want to receive the final report directly but would ask that it be deposited more discreetly in the White House in-box. He had problems bigger than space on his mind.

Nonetheless, that morning in his car Gehman realized that even with a lukewarm White House endorsement, the position that NASA was offering, if handled correctly, would allow for a significant inquiry into the accident. Gregory made it clear that Gehman would have the full support of NASA's engineers and technical resources in unraveling the physical mysteries of the accident—what actually had happened to the Columbia out there in its sheath of fire at 200,000 feet. Moreover, Gehman was confident that if the investigation had to go further, into why this accident had occurred, he had the experience necessary to sort through the human complexities of NASA and emerge with useful answers that might result in reform. This may have been overconfident of him, and to some extent utopian, but it was not entirely blind: he had been through big investigations before, most recently two years earlier, just after leaving the Navy, when he and a retired Army general named William Crouch had led an inquiry into the loss of seventeen sailors aboard the USS Cole, the destroyer that was attacked and nearly sunk by suicide terrorists in Yemen in October of 2000. Their report found fundamental errors in the functioning of the military command structure, and issued recommendations (largely classified) that are in effect today. The success of the Cole investigation was one of the arguments that Gregory used on him now. Gehman did not disagree, but he wanted to be very clear. He said, "I know you've got a piece of paper in front of you. Does it say that I'm not an aviator?"

Gregory said, "We don't need an aviator here. We need an investigator."

And so, driving down the highway to Norfolk, Gehman accepted the job. When he got home, he told his wife that he was a federal employee again and that there wouldn't be much sailing in the spring. That afternoon and evening, as the faxes and phone calls came in, he began to exercise control of the process, if only in his own mind, concluding that the board's charter as originally written by NASA would have to be strengthened and expanded, and that its name should immediately be changed from the absurd International Space Station and Space Shuttle Mishap Interagency Investigations Board (the ISSSSMIIB) to the more workable Columbia Accident Investigation Board, or CAIB, which could be pronounced in one syllable, as Cabe.

NASA initially did not resist any of his suggestions. Gregory advised Gehman to head to Barksdale Air Force Base, in Shreveport, Louisiana, where the wreckage was being collected. As Gehman began to explore airline connections, word came that a NASA executive jet, a Gulfstream, would be dispatched to carry him, along with several other board members, directly to Barksdale. The jet arrived in Norfolk on Sunday afternoon, the day after the accident. One of the members already aboard was Steven Wallace, the head of accident investigations for the FAA. Wallace is a second-generation pilot, an athletic, tightly wound man with wide experience in government and a skeptical view of the powerful. He later told me that when Gehman got on the airplane, he was dressed in a business suit, and that, having introduced himself, he explained that they might run into the press, and if they did, he would handle things. This raised some questions about Gehman's motivations (and indeed Gehman turned out to enjoy the limelight), but as Wallace soon discovered, grandstanding was not what Gehman was about. As the Gulfstream proceeded toward Louisiana, Gehman rolled up his sleeves and, sitting at the table in the back of the airplane, began to ask for the thoughts and perspectives of the board members there—not about what might have happened to the Columbia but about how best to find out. It was the start of what would become an intense seven-month relationship. It was obvious that Gehman was truly listening to the ideas, and that he was capable of integrating them quickly and productively into his own thoughts. By the end of the flight even Wallace was growing impressed.

But Gehman was in some ways also naive, formed as he had been by investigative experience within the military, in which much of the work proceeds behind closed doors, and conflict of interest is not a big concern. The Columbia investigation, he discovered, was going to be a very different thing. Attacks against the caib began on the second day, and by midweek, as the board moved from Shreveport to Houston to set up shop, they showed no signs of easing. Congress in particular was thundering that Gehman was a captive investigator, that his report would be a whitewash, and that the White House should replace the caib with a Challenger-style presidential commission. This came as a surprise to Gehman, who had assumed that he could just go about his business but who now realized that he would have to accommodate these concerns if the final report was to have any credibility at all. Later he said to me, "I didn't go in thinking about it, but as I began to hear the independence thing—'You can't have a panel appointed by NASA investigating itself!'—I realized I'd better deal with Congress." He did this at first mainly by listening on the phone. "They told me what I had to do to build my credibility. I didn't invent it—they told me. They also said, 'We hate NASA. We don't trust them. Their culture is no good. And their cost accounting is no good.' And I said, 'Okay.'"

More than that, Gehman came to realize that it was the elected representatives in Congress—and neither O'Keefe nor NASA—who constituted the caib's real constituency, and that their concerns were legitimate. As a result of this, along with a growing understanding of the depth and complexity of the work at hand, he forced through a series of changes, establishing a congressional-liaison office, gaining an independent budget (ultimately of about $20 million), wresting the report from O'Keefe's control, re-writing the stated mission to include the finding of "root causes and circumstances," and hiring an additional five board members, all civilians of unimpeachable reputation: the retired Electric Boat boss Roger Tetrault, the former astronaut Sally Ride, the Nobel-laureate physicist Douglas Osheroff, the aerodynamicist and former Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall, and the historian and space-policy expert John Logsdon. Afterward, the loudest criticism faded away. Still, Gehman's political judgment was not perfect. He allowed the new civilian members to be brought on through the NASA payroll (at prorated annual salaries of $134,000)—a strange lapse under the circumstances, and one that led to superficial accusations that the caib remained captive. The Orlando Sentinel ran a story about the lack of public access to the caib's interviews under the ambiguous headline "board paid to ensure secrecy." The idea evoked laughter among some of the investigators, who knew the inquiry's direction. But unnecessary damage was done.

Equally unnecessary was Gehman's habit of referring to O'Keefe as "Sean," a clubbish mannerism that led people to conclude, erroneously, that the two men were friends. In fact their relationship was strained, if polite. Gehman told me that he had never asked for the full story behind his selection on the morning of the accident—maybe because it would have been impossible to know the unvarnished truth. Certainly, though, O'Keefe had had little opportunity to contemplate his choice. By quick view Gehman was a steady hand and a good establishment man who could lend the gravitas of his four stars to this occasion; he was also, of course, one of the men behind the Cole investigation. O'Keefe later told me that he had read the Cole report during his stint as a professor, but that he remembered it best as the subject of a case study presented by one of his academic colleagues as an example of a narrowly focused investigation that, correctly, had not widened beyond its original mandate. This was true, but a poor predictor of Gehman as a man. His Cole investigation had not widened (for instance, into assigning individual blame) for the simple reason that other investigations, by the Navy and the FBI, were already covering that ground. Instead, Gehman and Crouch had gone deep, and relentlessly so. The result was a document that bluntly questioned current American dogma, identified arrogance in the command structure, and critiqued U.S. military assumptions about the terrorist threat. The tone was frank. For example, while expressing understanding of the diplomatic utility of labeling terrorists as "criminals," the report warned against buying into that language, or into the parallel idea that these terrorists were "cowards." When, later, I expressed my surprise at his freedom of expression, Gehman did not deny that people have recently been decried as traitors for less. But freedom of expression was clearly his habit: he spoke to me just as openly about the failures of his cherished Navy, of Congress, and increasingly of NASA.

When I mentioned this character trait to one of the new board members, Sheila Widnall, she laughed and said she'd seen it before inside the Pentagon, and that people just didn't understand the highest level of the U.S. military. These officers are indeed the establishment, she said, but they are so convinced of the greatness of the American construct that they will willingly tear at its components in the belief that its failures can be squarely addressed. Almost all of the current generation of senior leaders have also been through the soul-searching that followed the defeat in Vietnam.

O'Keefe had his own understanding of the establishment, and it was probably sophisticated, but he clearly did not anticipate Gehman's rebellion. By the end of the second week, as Gehman established an independent relationship with Congress and began to break through the boundaries initially drawn by NASA, it became clear that O'Keefe was losing control. He maintained a brave front of wanting a thorough inquiry, but it was said that privately he was angry. The tensions came to the surface toward the end of February, at about the same time that Gehman insisted, over O'Keefe's resistance, that the full report ultimately be made available to the public. The caib was expanding to a staff of about 120 people, many of them professional accident investigators and technical experts who could support the core board members. They were working seven days a week out of temporary office space in the sprawling wasteland of South Houston, just off the property of the Johnson Space Center. One morning several of the board members came in to see Gehman, and warned him that the caib was headed for a "shipwreck."

Gehman knew what they meant. In the days following the accident O'Keefe had established an internal Mishap Investigation Team, whose job was to work closely with the caib, essentially as staff, and whose members—bizarrely—included some of the decision-makers most closely involved with the Columbia's final flight. The team was led by Linda Ham, a razor-sharp manager in the shuttle program, whose actions during the flight would eventually be singled out as an egregious example of NASA's failings. Gehman did not know that yet, but it dawned on him that Ham was in a position to filter the inbound NASA reports, and he remembered a recent three-hour briefing that she had run with an iron hand, allowing little room for spontaneous exploration. He realized that she and the others would have to leave the caib, and he wrote a careful letter to O'Keefe in Washington, requesting their immediate removal. It is a measure of the insularity at the Johnson Space Center that NASA did not gracefully acquiesce. Ham and another manager, Ralph Roe, in particular reacted badly. In Gehman's office, alternately in anger and tears, they refused to leave, accusing Gehman of impugning their integrity and asking him how they were supposed to explain their dismissal to others. Gehman suggested to them what Congress had insisted to him—that people simply cannot investigate themselves. Civics 101. Once stated, it seems like an obvious principle.

O'Keefe had a master's degree in public administration, but he disagreed. It was odd. He had not been with the agency long enough to be infected by its insularity, and as he later promised Congress, he was willing—no, eager—to identify and punish any of his NASA subordinates who could be held responsible for the accident. Nonetheless, he decided to defy Gehman, and he announced that his people would remain in place. It was an ill-considered move. Gehman simply went public with his letter, posting it on the caib Web site. Gehman understood that O'Keefe felt betrayed—"stabbed in the back" was the word going around—but NASA had left him no choice. O'Keefe surrendered. Ham and the others were reassigned, and the Mishap Investigation Team was disbanded, replaced by NASA staffers who had not been involved in the Columbia's flight and would be more likely to cooperate with the caib's investigators. The board was never able to overcome completely the whiff of collusion that had accompanied its birth, but Gehman had won a significant fight, even if it meant that he and "Sean" would not be friends.

The space shuttle is the most audacious flying machine ever built, an engineering fantasy made real. Before each flight it stands vertically on the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center, as the core component of a rocket assembly 184 feet tall. The shuttle itself, which is also known as the orbiter, is a winged vehicle roughly the size of a DC-9, with three main rocket engines in the tail, a large unpressurized cargo bay in the midsection, and a cramped two-level crew compartment in the nose. It is attached to a huge external tank containing liquid fuel for the three main engines. That tank in turn is attached to two solid-fuel rockets, known as boosters, which flank the assembly and bear its full weight on the launch pad. Just before the launch, the weight is about 4.5 million pounds, 90 percent of which is fuel. It is a dramatic time, ripe with anticipation; the shuttle vents vapors like a breathing thing; the ground crews pull away until finally no one is left; the air seems unusually quiet.

Typically there are seven astronauts aboard. Four of them sit in the cockpit, and three on the lower level, in the living quarters known as the mid-deck. Because of the shuttle's vertical position, their seats are effectively rotated backward 90 degrees, so they are sitting on their backs, feeling their own weight in a way that tends to emphasize gravity's pull. At the front of the cockpit, positioned closer to the instrument panel than is necessary for the typical astronaut's six-foot frame, the commander and the pilot can look straight ahead into space. They are highly trained. They know exactly what they are getting into. Sometimes they have waited years for this moment to arrive.

The launch window may be just a few minutes wide. It is ruled by orbital mechanics, and defined by the track and position of the destination—usually now the unfinished International Space Station. Six seconds before liftoff the three main engines are ignited and throttled up to 100 percent power, producing more than a million pounds of thrust. The shuttle responds with what is known as "the twang," swaying several feet in the direction of the external tank and then swaying back. This is felt in the cockpit. The noise inside is not very loud. If the computers show that the main engines are operating correctly, the solid rocket boosters ignite. The boosters are ferocious devices—the same sort of monsters that upon failure blew the Challenger apart. Each of them produces three million pounds of thrust. Once ignited, they cannot be shut off or throttled back. The shuttle lifts off. It accelerates fast enough to clear the launch tower doing about 100 mph, though it is so large that seen from the outside, it appears to be climbing slowly.

The flying is done entirely by autopilot unless something goes wrong. Within seconds the assembly rotates and aims on course, tilting slightly off the vertical and rolling so that the orbiter is inverted beneath the external tank. Although the vibrations are heavy enough to blur the instruments, the acceleration amounts to only about 2.5 Gs—a mild sensation of heaviness pressing the astronauts back into their seats. After about forty seconds the shuttle accelerates through Mach 1, 760 mph, at about 17,000 feet, climbing nearly straight up. Eighty seconds later, with the shuttle doing about 3,400 mph and approaching 150,000 feet, the crew can feel the thrust from the solid rocket boosters begin to tail off. Just afterward, with a bright flash and a loud explosion heard inside the orbiter, the rocket boosters separate from the main tank; they continue to travel upward on a ballistic path to 220,000 feet before falling back and parachuting into the sea. Now powered by the main engines alone, the ride turns smooth, and the forces settle down to about 1 G.

One pilot described the sensations to me on the simplest level. He said, "First it's like, 'Hey, this is a rough ride!' and then, 'Hey, I'm on an electric train!' and then, 'Hey, this train's starting to go pretty darned fast!'" Speed is the ultimate goal of the launch sequence. Having climbed steeply into ultra-thin air, the shuttle gently pitches over until it is flying nearly parallel to Earth, inverted under the external tank, and thrusting at full power. Six minutes after launch, at about 356,000 feet, the shuttle is doing around 9,200 mph, which is fast, but only about half the speed required to sustain an orbit. It therefore begins a shallow dive, during which it gains speed at the rate of 1,000 mph every twenty seconds—an acceleration so fast that it presses the shuttle against its 3 G limit, and the engines have to be briefly throttled back. At 10,300 mph the shuttle rolls to a head-up position. Passing through 15,000 mph, it begins to climb again, still accelerating at 3 Gs, until, seconds later, in the near vacuum of space, it achieves orbital velocity, or 17,500 mph. The plumes from the main engines wrap forward and dance across the cockpit windows, making light at night like that of Saint Elmo's fire. Only eight and a half minutes have passed since the launch. The main engines are extinguished, and the external tank is jettisoned. The shuttle is in orbit. After further maneuvering it assumes its standard attitude, flying inverted in relation to Earth and tail first as it proceeds around the globe.

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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