The Worst Day: 02.01.03
This story is Chapter 1 in an 11-part series by Florida Today.
CAPE CANAVERAL - Wayne Hale reveled in anticipation. It didn't matter that he had seen shuttle orbiters touch down dozens of times before.
So what if he helped orchestrate dozens of landings from Mission Control? Hale still got goosebumps. He was a kid again, waiting to see a ship return from space.
So on Feb. 1, 2003, Hale mingled with a couple of hundred others along a runway surrounded by alligator-infested swamps, waiting for shuttle Columbia and seven astronauts to return to Earth after 16 days in orbit.
This was the veteran engineer and flight director's first day on a new job: heading the Kennedy Space Center team that synthesizes all that must happen to assemble a shuttle for launch. He had rolled into Cocoa Beach the night before to move into a beachside condo, a meager portion of his belongings in tow.
The crowds at the Shuttle Landing Facility had dwindled over the years. Fewer reporters, fewer VIPs, fewer NASA brass assembled to see the space planes land. It had become a "been-there, done-that" experience for many.
Those who did come that morning experienced a mixture of company picnic and airport tarmac, a scene belying the technical high-wire act pulled off every time a spacecraft brings humans back to Earth.
Astronauts' kids dashed around and under the bleachers. Grownups chatted up old friends and colleagues. Hale mingled with other managers as well as the KSC folks he would be working with over the next year or so.
Over the buzz of a hundred different conversations, few could hear announcer James Hartsfield's voice crackling from the loudspeakers, relaying what was happening aboard Columbia and in Mission Control.
TVs showed controllers in Houston monitoring every blip of data beamed from the orbiter as it plunged into Earth's atmosphere, a gigantic falling brick engulfed in a fireball. An oversized digital clock ticked down the minutes, and seconds, until Columbia would appear as a glint of light above, shake the ground with twin sonic booms and whisk past on the runway with a billowing parachute in tow.
The few who understood the lingo picked up enough words here and there to follow along. Then, Hale heard one seemingly trivial statement, then another, then another that made his stomach tighten. Something was wrong. The rest of the crowd, oblivious, went about their celebration.
Columbia was 16 minutes from home, where astronauts and loved ones would reunite, when Hale realized there would be no reunion.
"Columbia out of communications at present with Mission Control as it continues its course toward Florida," came Hartsfield's voice over the loudspeakers, giving no hint of the growing confusion in Houston.
But a few veterans shared apprehensive glances. People huddled around TVs and speakers to see if they could make sense of the few vague words that had them alarmed. Then, they heard the repeatedly unanswered call, "Columbia, Houston UHF comm check."
"It was a kick in the stomach," Hale said. Horror. Nausea. Guilt. Panic. Confusion. It all hit at once.
Some KSC workers and astronauts started to herd the crew families out of the bleachers. Managers scurried to cars, cell phones on their ears, heading toward the Launch Control Center. The big countdown clock ticked to zero, then started ticking upward.
LAUNCH CONTROL, KENNEDY SPACE CENTER
Unimaginable horror in a baby-blue Texas sky
"We just saw the orbiter go overhead in pieces," the caller from Texas said.
Stephanie Stilson couldn't believe what she heard. Stilson was shadowing the team that handles launches and landings at KSC from one of the historic Launch Control Center rooms, where a wall of towering, slanted windows looks out on the seaside shuttle launch pads.
The team was listening to the chatter of mission controllers in Houston. They heard about strange telemetry readings, lost communication, but they had no idea how bad it was. Stilson, a west Cocoa woman in charge of getting shuttle Discovery ready for its flights, hadn't worked a landing.
At first she'd thought: "OK, we're flying blind. They're fine; they're seeing what they need to see in the cockpit; we just don't have that communication." Worst case: The crew would land in the western desert; NASA would do an emergency recovery.
Then came the call from Texas.
"Oh, no," Stilson thought. "This can't be happening. This is not right."
Administrator Sean O'Keefe and other managers, including Hale, were hurrying back from the runway to the firing room. Stilson rushed to locate headsets so they could listen in on Mission Control. Then she saw a television. The scene was worse than she imagined: Pieces of Columbia streamed across a baby-blue sky.
Back in the control room, she broke the news. They locked the doors, seized paperwork and started calling people who had stayed home that morning. Everyone needed to get to work.
NORTH BREVARD COUNTY
"It's gone. The vehicle is gone."
Bridgit Higginbotham was in the shower.
Columbia was soaring over Dallas, and she needed to hurry to KSC.
Her job that day: escort homebound astronaut David Brown through a battery of post-flight medical exams.
Husband Scott, a NASA manager on the International Space Station project, had other things on his mind. His 76-year-old grandfather died the day before from Alzheimer's disease. Scott was getting ready to fly to Missouri for the funeral.
Caitlin and Haley, their 4-year-old twins, already were up, and Scott aimed to take them outside their home near Mims to watch Columbia fly over. He wanted the girls to hear the thunderous booms that herald a shuttle's return to Florida's Space Coast.
Scott tuned in NASA TV. On the screen, astronaut Charlie Hobaugh sat in the Mission Control Center, a stony look on his face, calling up to the crew: "Columbia, Houston, UHF comm check."
"I knew just from the expression on his face that something wasn't quite right," Scott said.
Not only could Hobaugh not hail Commander Rick Husband, NASA was getting no data from the orbiter. A radar tracker on Merritt Island did not pick up any sign of the orbiter, long after it should have.
Scott went into the bathroom. "Bridgit, I think we lost the vehicle."
He ducked back out to listen for another 30 seconds. Tears welled. He went back to Bridgit.
"It's gone. The vehicle is gone."
The next several hours were a blur of cell phone calls and pager beeps. Scott called family members: "Something's happened. Please don't call me. I'll call you when I know more."
The twins clamored for attention.
The toddlers knew their parents were upset. They wanted to know why. The girls knew what the shuttle was and that Mommy and Daddy worked on it. So Scott and Bridgit told the kids. There's been an accident. The shuttle was destroyed. The astronauts were killed.
The children didn't quite grasp it all. But they could tell their parents were hurt. They came every little while for a hug.
Scott flew to Missouri the next day.
"It was a bad-upon-bad kind of situation," he said. "The timing was just like, bang-bang. I lost eight family members in the span of two days."
Bridgit did, too. On Columbia's last day in space, Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon finished an experiment Bridgit helped develop. Rick Husband radioed a special thanks to Bridgit and others over space-to-ground airwaves. Someone later sent her the tape.
Her eyes filled with tears when she played it back.
BLACKWATER RIVER, FLORIDA PANHANDLE
Long trip back to Brevard leaves time for questions
It took longer for word to reach the wilderness. The sun had begun to warm their necks a little, but Armando Oliu and his buddies didn't mind. The men had won a rare escape from the cell phones and pagers that ruled their lives back home. They were paddling canoes up the Blackwater River, in the Panhandle, relishing the near silence of old Florida.
Most of their colleagues were working the shuttle landing. Oliu needed this respite.
He had spent the previous couple of weeks embroiled in an ugly battle among engineers and managers over a bit of Styrofoam-like debris that Oliu's team flagged on the films of Columbia's liftoff Jan. 16.
The images showed the foam smashing to bits against Columbia's left wing. The pictures weren't perfect. They never were.
Aging equipment or operator error typically caused some glitch, but even slightly blurry films were consistently good enough that Oliu's team could discern the tiniest oddity.
That was their job. Watch, rewind, watch again the countless recordings of every liftoff for anything out of the ordinary. Oliu wrote the report, then zapped it via e-mail to engineers across the country.
This debris caught people's attention.
Analysis and debate erupted, behind closed doors, but managers ultimately decided the impact had not compromised the heat shield.
Otherwise, the men would not have gone camping. They brought a radio but didn't turn it on. They were cut off from civilization and loving it. One of Oliu's old KSC pals, who had moved to a new job at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, had come down for the trip. Both men's families stayed back at Oliu's house in Rockledge.
Late in the morning, one of Oliu's pals picked up an intermittent cell signal and dialed home. His mother-in-law had surgery that morning. He wanted to check in with his wife. There was no chitchat.
Have you heard? she asked.
She told him the shuttle blew up.
The men spun the canoes around, paddling for five hours back to camp.
The trek left Oliu time to ponder the question nagging every good engineer, technician and manager on the shuttle project: "Did I miss something?"
He knew enough from the launch films to have an idea what had gone wrong.
It was 1 a.m. when Oliu and his buddy got back to Rockledge. Armando's tortuous drive and his wife's day of unrelenting telephone calls from loved ones, co-workers and nosy reporters left everyone spent.
The women were waiting up on the couch, watching TV news. The men walked in and straight into the arms of their wives.
Military training eases pain of making hard calls
NASA astronaut Wendy Lawrence instinctively switched to autopilot.
A veteran Navy helicopter pilot, she had lost fellow fliers to aircraft accidents before, but never seven at one time.
The tragedy unfolding on NASA TV overwhelmed her. So she fell back on her military training.
She got dressed. She got in her car. She made the five-minute drive to Johnson Space Center. She headed to the Astronaut Office's action center. She helped Andy Thomas, deputy chief of the office, wade through a checklist of what to do in a shuttle catastrophe.
"We would practice scenarios like this -- just so that we were ready on the real day to be able to go through the checklist without question," Lawrence said.
She started dialing the numbers of more than 100 astronauts.
She started checking names on a recall roster and dialing phone numbers.
She let everyone know Columbia and its crew had been lost. A full briefing for the astronauts was scheduled. She told them the time. She told them the place. She gave them what sketchy information she had.
"I went into kind of automatic pilot mode, because this was a scenario that I had been forced to train for in my younger days in the military," Lawrence said.
JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, HOUSTON
Profound shock, loss and suffering
That afternoon, an ashen Ron Dittemore stared down at notes on a table. The shuttle program manager was about to address the growing gaggle of reporters at Johnson Space Center and across the country via television. He did not want to do it, but someone had to.
"I'm sure you understand how difficult a time this is for us right now," Dittemore said, pausing between words and fighting back tears. "We're devastated because of the events that unfolded this morning.
"There's a certain amount of shock in our system because we have suffered the loss of seven family members, and we're learning to deal with that. There's certainly a somber mood in our teams as we continue to try to understand the events that occurred, but our thoughts and our prayers go out to the families of Rick and Willie and David and Kalpana, Michael, Laurel and Ilan, true heroes, and we are suffering."
Worlds turned upside down. Stilson did not know her orbiter, Discovery, would lead the fleet back to space. Nor did Higginbotham know the cargo he would prepare would be needed so badly to rescue a fragile space station. Lawrence and Thomas weren't yet named to the Discovery crew. Hale couldn't guess he would go back to Houston to help overhaul a dysfunctional shuttle management system. Oliu didn't foresee the role he would play in helping make sure this never happened again.
Published under license from FLORIDA TODAY. Copyright ? 2005 FLORIDA TODAY. No portion of this material may be reproduced in any way without the written consent of FLORIDA TODAY.
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