Columbia's Last Flight

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

At 7:00 a.m. on the ninth day, January 24, which was one week before the Columbia's scheduled re-entry, the engineers from the Debris Assessment Team formally presented the results of their numerical analysis to Linda Ham's intermediary, Don McCormack. The room was so crowded with concerned observers that some people stood in the hall, peering in. The fundamental purpose of the meeting would have been better served had the engineers been able to project a photograph of a damaged wing onto the screen, but, tragically, that was not to be. Instead they projected a typically crude PowerPoint summary, based on the results from the Crater model, with which they attempted to explain a nuanced position: first, that if the tile had been damaged, it had probably endured well enough to allow the Columbia to come home; and second, that for lack of information they had needed to make assumptions to reach that conclusion, and that troubling unknowns therefore limited the meaning of the results. The latter message seems to have been lost. Indeed, this particular PowerPoint presentation became a case study for Edward Tufte, the brilliant communications specialist from Yale, who in a subsequent booklet, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, tore into it for its dampening effect on clear expression and thought. The caib later joined in, describing the widespread use of PowerPoint within NASA as one of the obstacles to internal communication, and criticizing the Debris Assessment presentation for mechanically underplaying the uncertainties that remained.

Had the uncertainties been more strongly expressed as the central factor in question, the need to inspect the wing by spacewalk or photograph might have become obvious even to the shuttle managers. Still, the Mission Management Team seemed unprepared to hear nuance. Fixated on potential tile damage as the relevant question, assuming without good evidence that the RCC panels were strong enough to withstand a foam strike, subtly skewing the discussion away from catastrophic burn-through and toward the potential effects on turnaround times on the ground and how that might affect the all-important launch schedule, the shuttle managers were convinced that they had the situation as they defined it firmly under control.

At a regularly scheduled MMT meeting later that morning McCormack summarized the PowerPoint presentation for Linda Ham. He said, "The analysis is not complete. There is one case yet that they wish to run, but kind of just jumping to the conclusion of all that, they do show that [there is], obviously, a potential for significant tile damage here, but thermal analysis does not indicate that there is potential for a burn-through. I mean, there could be localized heating damage. There is ... obviously there is a lot of uncertainty in all this in terms of the size of the debris and where it hit and the angle of incidence."

Ham answered, "No burn-through means no catastrophic damage. And the localized heating damage would mean a tile replacement?"

"Right, it would mean possible impacts to turnaround repairs and that sort of thing, but we do not see any kind of safety-of-flight issue here yet in anything that we've looked at."

This was all too accurate in itself. Ham said, "And no safety of flight, no issue for this mission, nothing that we're going to do different. There may be a turnaround [delay]."

McCormack said, "Right. It could potentially [have] hit the RCC ... We don't see any issue if it hit the RCC ..."

The discussion returned to the tiles. Ham consulted with a tile specialist named Calvin Schomburg, who for days had been energetically making a case independent of the Debris Assessment analysis that a damaged tile would endure re-entry—and thereby adding, unintentionally, to the distractions and false assumptions of the management team. After a brief exchange Ham cut off further discussion with a quick summary for some people participating in the meeting by conference call, who were having trouble hearing the speakerphone. She said, "So, no safety-of-flight kind of issue. It's more of a turnaround issue similar to what we've had on other flights. That's it? All right, any questions on that?"

And there were not.

For reasons unexplained, when the official minutes of the meeting were written up and distributed (having been signed off on by Ham), all mention of the foam strike was omitted. This was days before the Columbia's re-entry, and seems to indicate sheer lack of attention to this subject, rather than any sort of cover-up.

The truth is that Linda Ham was as much a victim of NASA as were Columbia's astronauts, who were still doing their science experiments then, and free-falling in splendor around the planet. Her predicament had roots that went way back, nearly to the time of Ham's birth, and it involved not only the culture of the human space-flight program but also the White House, Congress, and NASA leadership over the past thirty years. Gehman understood this fully, and as the investigation drew to a close, he vowed to avoid merely going after the people who had been standing close to the accident when it occurred. The person standing closest was, of course, Linda Ham, and she will bear a burden for her mismanagement. But by the time spring turned to summer, and the caib moved its operation from Houston to Washington, D.C., Gehman had taken to saying, "Complex systems fail in complex ways," and he was determined that the caib's report would document the full range of NASA's mistakes. It did, and in clean, frank prose, using linked sentences and no PowerPoint displays.

As the report was released, on August 26, Mars came closer to Earth than it had in 60,000 years. Gehman told me that he continued to believe in the importance of America's human space-flight effort, and even of the return of the shuttle to flight—at least until a replacement with a clearer mission can be built and put into service. It was a quiet day in Washington, with Congress in recess and the President on vacation. Aides were coming from Capitol Hill to pick up several hundred copies of the report and begin planning hearings for the fall. The White House was receiving the report too, though keeping a cautious distance, as had been expected; it was said that the President might read an executive summary. Down in Houston, board members were handing copies to the astronauts, the managers, and the families of the dead.

Gehman was dressed in a suit, as he had been at the start of all this, seven months before. It was up to him now to drive over to NASA headquarters, in the southwest corner of the city, and deliver the report personally to Sean O'Keefe. I went along for the ride, as did the board member Sheila Widnall, who was there to lend Gehman some moral support. The car was driven by a Navy officer in whites. At no point since the accident had anyone at NASA stepped forward to accept personal responsibility for contributing to this accident—not Linda Ham, not Ron Dittemore, and certainly not Sean O'Keefe. However, the report in Gehman's hands (248 pages, full color, well bound) made responsibility very clear. This was not going to be a social visit. Indeed, it turned out to be extraordinarily tense. Gehman and Widnall strode up the carpeted hallways in a phalanx of anxious, dark-suited NASA staffers, who swung open the doors in advance and followed close on their heels. O'Keefe's office suite was practically imperial in its expense and splendor. High officials stood in small, nervous groups, murmuring. After a short delay O'Keefe appeared—a tall, balding, gray-haired man with stooped shoulders. He shook hands and ushered Gehman and Widnall into the privacy of his inner office. Ten minutes later they emerged. There was a short ceremony for NASA cameras, during which O'Keefe thanked Gehman for his important contribution, and then it was time to leave. As we drove away, I asked Gehman how it had been in there with O'Keefe.

He said "Stiff. Very stiff."

We talked about the future. The report had made a series of recommendations for getting the shuttle back into flight, and beyond that for beginning NASA's long and necessary process of reform. I knew that Gehman, along with much of the board, had volunteered to Congress to return in a year, to peer in deeply again, and to try to judge if progress had been made. I asked him how genuine he thought such progress could be, and he managed somehow to express hope, though skeptically.

By January 23, the Columbia's eighth day in orbit, the crew had solved a couple of minor system problems, and after a half day off, during which no doubt some of the astronauts took the opportunity for some global sightseeing, they were proceeding on schedule with their laboratory duties, and were in good spirits and health. They had been told nothing of the foam strike. Down in Houston, the flight controllers at Mission Control were aware of it, and they knew that the previous day Linda Ham had canceled the request for Air Force photographs. Confident that the issue would be satisfactorily resolved by the shuttle managers, they decided nonetheless to inform the flight crew by e-mail—if only because certain reporters at the Florida launch site had heard of it, and might ask questions at an upcoming press conference, a Public Affairs Office, or PAO, event. The e-mail was written by one of the lead flight controllers, in the standard, overly upbeat style. It was addressed to the pilots, Rick Husband and William McCool.

Under the subject line "info: Possible PAO Event Question," it read,

Rick and Willie,

You guys are doing a fantastic job staying on the timeline and accomplishing great science. Keep up the good work and let us know if there is anything that we can do better from an MCC/POCC standpoint.

There is one item that I would like to make you aware of for the upcoming PAO event ... This item is not even worth mentioning other than wanting to make sure that you are not surprised by it in a question from a reporter.

The e-mail then briefly explained what the launch pictures had shown—a hit from the bipod-ramp foam. A video clip was attached. The e-mail concluded,

Experts have reviewed the high speed photography and there is no concern for RCC or tile damage. We have seen this same phenomenon on several other flights and there is absolutely no concern for entry. That is all for now. It's a pleasure working with you every day.

The e-mail's content honestly reflected what was believed on the ground, though in a repackaged and highly simplified form. There was no mention of the inadequate quality of the pictures, of the large size of the foam, of the ongoing analysis, or of Linda Ham's decision against Air Force imagery. This was typical for Mission Control communications, a small example of a long-standing pattern of something like information-hoarding that was instinctive and a matter as much of style as of intent: the astronauts had been told of the strike, but almost as if they were children who didn't need to be involved in the grown-up conversation. Two days later, when Rick Husband answered the e-mail, he wrote, "Thanks a million!" and "Thanks for the great work!" and after making a little joke, that "Main Wing" could sound like a Chinese name, he signed off with an e-mail smile—:). He made no mention of the foam strike at all. And with that, as we now know, the crew's last chance for survival faded away.

Linda Ham was wrong. Had the hole in the leading edge been seen, actions could have been taken to try to save the astronauts' lives. The first would have been simply to buy some time. Assuming a starting point on the fifth day of the flight, NASA engineers subsequently calculated that by requiring the crew to rest and sleep, the mission could have been extended to a full month, to February 15. During that time the Atlantis, which was already being prepared for a scheduled March 1 launch, could have been processed more quickly by ground crews working around the clock, and made ready to go by February 10. If all had proceeded perfectly, there would have been a five-day window in which to blast off, join up with the Columbia, and transfer the stranded astronauts one by one to safety, by means of tethered spacewalks. Such a rescue would not have been easy, and it would have involved the possibility of another fatal foam strike and the loss of two shuttles instead of one; but in the risk-versus-risk world of space flight, veterans like Mike Bloomfield would immediately have volunteered, and NASA would have bet the farm.

The fallback would have been a desperate measure—a jury-rigged repair performed by the Columbia astronauts themselves. It would have required two spacewalkers to fill the hole with a combination of heavy tools and metal scraps scavenged from the crew compartment, and to supplement that mass with an ice bag shaped to the wing's leading edge. In theory, if much of the payload had been jettisoned, and luck was with the crew, such a repair might perhaps have endured a modified re-entry and allowed the astronauts to bail out at the standard 30,000 feet. The engineers who came up with this plan realized that in reality it would have been extremely dangerous, and might well have led to a high-speed burn-through and the loss of the crew. But anything would have been better than attempting a normal re-entry as it was actually flown.

The blessing, if one can be found, is that the astronauts remained unaware until nearly the end. A home video shot on board and found in the wreckage documented the relaxed mood in the cockpit as the shuttle descended through the entry interface at 400,000 feet, at 7:44:09 Houston time, northwest of Hawaii. The astronauts were drinking water in anticipation of gravity's redistributive effect on their bodies. The Columbia was flying at the standard 40-degree nose-up angle, with its wings level, and still doing nearly 17,000 mph; outside, though the air was ultra-thin and dynamic pressures were very low, the aerodynamic surfaces were beginning to move in conjunction with the array of control jets, which were doing the main work of maintaining the shuttle's attitude, and would throughout the re-entry. The astronauts commented like sightseers as sheets of fiery plasma began to pass by the windows.

The pilot, McCool, said, "Do you see it over my shoulder now, Laurel?"

Sitting behind him, the mission specialist Laurel Clark said, "I was filming. It doesn't show up nearly as much as the back."

McCool said to the Israeli payload specialist, Ilan Ramon, "It's going pretty good now. Ilan, it's really neat—it's a bright orange-yellow out over the nose, all around the nose."

The commander, Husband, said, "Wait until you start seeing the swirl patterns out your left or right windows."

McCool said, "Wow."

Husband said, "Looks like a blast furnace."

A few seconds later they began to feel gravity. Husband said, "Let's see here ... look at that."

McCool answered, "Yup, we're getting some Gs." As if it were unusual, he said, "I let go of the card, and it falls." Their instruments showed that they were experiencing one hundredth of a G. McCool looked out the window again. He said, "This is amazing. It's really getting, uh, fairly bright out there."

Husband said, "Yup. Yeah, you definitely don't want to be outside now."

The flight engineer, Kalpana Chawla, answered sardonically, "What—like we did before?" The crew laughed.

Outside, the situation was worse than they imagined. Normally, as a shuttle streaks through the upper atmosphere it heats the air immediately around it to temperatures as high as 10,000°, but largely because of the boundary layer—a sort of air cushion created by the leading edges—the actual surface temperatures are significantly lower, generally around 3,000°, which the vehicle is designed to withstand, if barely. The hole in the Columbia's leading edge, however, had locally undermined the boundary layer, and was now letting in a plume of superheated air that was cutting through insulation and working its way toward the inner recesses of the left wing. It is estimated that the plume may have been as hot as 8,000° near the RCC breach. The aluminum support structures inside the wing had a melting point of 1,200°, and they began to burn and give way.

The details of the left wing's failure are complex and technical, but the essentials are not difficult to understand. The wing was attacked by a snaking plume of hot gas, and eaten up from the inside. The consumption began when the shuttle was over the Pacific, and it grew worse over the United States. It included wire bundles leading from the sensors, which caused the data going into the MADS recorder and the telemetry going to Houston to fail in ways that only later made sense. At some point the plume blew right through the top of the left wing, and began to throw molten metal from the insides all over the aft rocket pods. At some point it burned its way into the left main gear well, but it did not explode the tires.

As drag increased on the left wing, the autopilot and combined flight-control systems at first easily compensated for the resulting tendency to roll and yaw to the left. By external appearance, therefore, the shuttle was doing its normal thing, banking first to the right and then to the left for the scheduled energy-management turns, and tracking perfectly down the descent profile for Florida. The speeds were good, the altitudes were good, and all systems were functioning correctly. From within the cockpit the ride appeared to be right.

By the time it got to Texas the Columbia had already proved itself a heroic flying machine, having endured for so long at hypersonic speeds with little left of the midsection inside its left wing, and the plume of hot gas still in there, alive, and eating it away. By now, however, the flight-control systems were nearing their limits. The breakup was associated with that. At 7:59:15 Mission Control noticed the sudden loss of tire pressure on the left gear as the damage rapidly progressed. This was followed by Houston's call "And Columbia, Houston, we see your tire-pressure messages, and we did not copy your last call," and at 7:59:32 by Columbia's final transmission, "Roger, ah, buh ..."

The Columbia was traveling at 12,738 mph, at 200,000 feet, and the dynamic pressures were building, with the wings "feeling" the air at about 170 mph. Now, suddenly, the bottom surface of the left wing began to cave upward into the interior void of melted and burned-through bracing and structure. As the curvature of the wing changed, the lift increased, causing the Columbia to want to roll violently to the right; at the same time, because of an increase in asymmetrical drag, it yawed violently to the left. The control systems went to their limits to maintain order, and all four right yaw jets on the tail fired simultaneously, but to no avail. At 8:00:19 the Columbia rolled over the top and went out of control.

The gyrations it followed were complex combinations of roll, yaw, and pitch, and looked something like an oscillating flat spin. They seem to have resulted in the vehicle's flying backwards. At one point the autopilot appears to have been switched off and then switched on again, as if Husband, an experienced test pilot, was trying to sort things out. The breakup lasted more than a minute. Not surprisingly, the left wing separated first. Afterward the tail, the right wing, and the main body came apart in what investigators later called a controlled sequence "right down the track." As had happened with the Challenger in 1986, the crew cabin broke off intact. It assumed a stable flying position, apparently nose high, and later disintegrated like a falling star across the East Texas sky.

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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