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 timesbefore.

So what if he helpedorchestrate 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, Halemingled with a couple of hundred others along a runway surrounded byalligator-infested swamps, waiting for shuttle Columbia and seven astronauts toreturn to Earth after 16 days in orbit.

This was the veteranengineer 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 forlaunch. He had rolled into Cocoa Beach the night before to move into a beachsidecondo, a meager portion of his belongings in tow.

The crowds at the ShuttleLanding 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 thatmorning experienced a mixture of company picnic and airport tarmac, a scenebelying the technical high-wire act pulled off every time a spacecraft bringshumans back to Earth.

Astronauts' kids dashedaround 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 workingwith over the next year or so.

Over the buzz of a hundreddifferent conversations, few could hear announcer James Hartsfield's voicecrackling 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'satmosphere, a gigantic falling brick engulfed in a fireball. An oversizeddigital clock ticked down the minutes, and seconds, until Columbia would appearas a glint of light above, shake the ground with twin sonic booms and whiskpast on the runway with a billowing parachute in tow.

The few who understood thelingo picked up enough words here and there to follow along. Then, Hale heardone seemingly trivial statement, then another, then another that made hisstomach tighten. Something was wrong. The rest of the crowd, oblivious, wentabout their celebration.

Columbia was 16 minutes from home, whereastronauts and loved ones would reunite, when Hale realized there would be noreunion.

"Columbia out ofcommunications at present with Mission Control as it continues its coursetoward Florida," came Hartsfield's voice over the loudspeakers, giving nohint of the growing confusion in Houston.

But a few veterans sharedapprehensive glances. People huddled around TVs and speakers to see if theycould make sense of the few vague words that had them alarmed. Then, they heardthe repeatedly unanswered call, "Columbia, Houston UHF comm check."

"It was a kick in thestomach," Hale said. Horror. Nausea. Guilt. Panic. Confusion. It all hitat once.

Some KSC workers andastronauts started to herd the crew families out of the bleachers. Managersscurried to cars, cell phones on their ears, heading toward the Launch Control Center. The big countdown clock ticked to zero, then started ticking upward.

Unimaginable horror in a baby-blue Texas sky

"We just saw theorbiter go overhead in pieces," the caller from Texas said.

Stephanie Stilson couldn'tbelieve what she heard. Stilson was shadowing the team that handles launchesand 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 launchpads.

The team was listening tothe chatter of mission controllers in Houston. They heard about strangetelemetry readings, lost communication, but they had no idea how bad it was.Stilson, a west Cocoa woman in charge of getting shuttle Discovery ready forits 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 seein the cockpit; we just don't have that communication." Worst case: Thecrew would land in the western desert; NASA would do an emergency recovery.

Then came the call from Texas.

"Oh, no," Stilsonthought. "This can't be happening. This is not right."

Administrator Sean O'Keefeand other managers, including Hale, were hurrying back from the runway to thefiring room. Stilson rushed to locate headsets so they could listen in onMission 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 callingpeople who had stayed home that morning. Everyone needed to get to work.

"It's gone. Thevehicle is gone."

Bridgit Higginbotham was inthe shower.

Columbia was soaring over Dallas, and sheneeded to hurry to KSC.

Her job that day: escorthomebound astronaut David Brown through a battery of post-flight medical exams.

Husband Scott, a NASAmanager on the International Space Station project, had other things on hismind. 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, their4-year-old twins, already were up, and Scott aimed to take them outside theirhome near Mims to watch Columbia fly over. He wanted the girls to hear thethunderous booms that herald a shuttle's return to Florida's Space Coast.

Scott tuned in NASA TV. Onthe screen, astronaut Charlie Hobaugh sat in the Mission Control Center, a stony look on his face, calling up to the crew: "Columbia, Houston, UHF commcheck."

"I knew just from theexpression on his face that something wasn't quite right," Scott said.

Not only could Hobaugh nothail Commander Rick Husband, NASA was getting no data from the orbiter. A radartracker on Merritt Island did not pick up any sign of the orbiter, long afterit should have.

Scott went into thebathroom. "Bridgit, I think we lost the vehicle."

He ducked back out tolisten for another 30 seconds. Tears welled. He went back to Bridgit.

"It's gone. Thevehicle is gone."

The next several hours werea 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 knowmore."

The twins clamored forattention.

The toddlers knew theirparents were upset. They wanted to know why. The girls knew what the shuttlewas 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 werekilled.

The children didn't quitegrasp it all. But they could tell their parents were hurt. They came everylittle while for a hug.

Scott flew to Missouri the next day.

"It was a bad-upon-badkind of situation," he said. "The timing was just like, bang-bang. Ilost 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 Bridgithelped develop. Rick Husband radioed a special thanks to Bridgit and othersover space-to-ground airwaves. Someone later sent her the tape.

Her eyes filled with tearswhen she played it back.

Long trip back to Brevard leaves time for questions

It took longer for word toreach the wilderness. The sun had begun to warm their necks a little, butArmando Oliu and his buddies didn't mind. The men had won a rare escape fromthe cell phones and pagers that ruled their lives back home. They were paddlingcanoes up the Blackwater River, in the Panhandle, relishing the near silence ofold Florida.

Most of their colleagueswere working the shuttle landing. Oliu needed this respite.

He had spent the previouscouple of weeks embroiled in an ugly battle among engineers and managers over abit of Styrofoam-like debris that Oliu's team flagged on the films of Columbia's liftoff Jan. 16.

The images showed the foamsmashing to bits against Columbia's left wing. The pictures weren't perfect.They never were.

Aging equipment or operatorerror typically caused some glitch, but even slightly blurry films wereconsistently good enough that Oliu's team could discern the tiniest oddity.

That was their job. Watch, rewind, watch again the countless recordings ofevery liftoff for anything out of the ordinary. Oliu wrote the report, thenzapped it via e-mail to engineers across the country.

This debris caught people's attention.

Analysis and debate erupted, behind closed doors, but managers ultimatelydecided the impact had not compromised the heat shield.

Otherwise, the men would not have gone camping. They brought a radio but didn'tturn it on. They were cut off from civilization and loving it. One of Oliu'sold 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 housein Rockledge.

Late in the morning, one of Oliu's pals picked up an intermittent cell signaland dialed home. His mother-in-law had surgery that morning. He wanted to checkin with his wife. There was no chitchat.

Have you heard? she asked.

"Heard what?"

She told him the shuttle blew up.

"My God."

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 misssomething?"

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 tortuousdrive 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 andstraight into the arms of their wives.

Military training easespain of making hard calls

NASA astronaut WendyLawrence instinctively switched to autopilot.

A veteran Navy helicopter pilot, she had lost fellow fliers to aircraftaccidents before, but never seven at one time.

The tragedy unfolding on NASA TV overwhelmed her. So she fell back on hermilitary 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 AndyThomas, deputy chief of the office, wade through a checklist of what to do in ashuttle catastrophe.

"We would practice scenarios like this -- just so that we were ready onthe 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 forthe 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 scenariothat I had been forced to train for in my younger days in the military," Lawrence said.

Profound shock, loss and suffering

That afternoon, an ashenRon Dittemore stared down at notes on a table. The shuttle program manager wasabout 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 hadto.

"I'm sure you understand how difficult a time this is for us rightnow," 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 sufferedthe loss of seven family members, and we're learning to deal with that. There'scertainly a somber mood in our teams as we continue to try to understand theevents that occurred, but our thoughts and our prayers go out to the familiesof Rick and Willie and David and Kalpana, Michael, Laurel and Ilan, trueheroes, and we are suffering."

Worlds turned upside down. Stilson did not know her orbiter, Discovery, wouldlead the fleet back to space. Nor did Higginbotham know the cargo he wouldprepare would be needed so badly to rescue a fragile space station. Lawrenceand Thomas weren't yet named to the Discovery crew. Hale couldn't guess hewould go back to Houston to help overhaul a dysfunctional shuttle managementsystem. Oliu didn't foresee the role he would play in helping make sure thisnever happened again.

Publishedunder license from FLORIDA TODAY. Copyright ? 2005 FLORIDA TODAY.No portion of this material may be reproduced in any way without the writtenconsent of FLORIDA TODAY.

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Aerospace Journalist

Todd Halvoron is a veteran aerospace journalist based in Titusville, Florida who covered NASA and the U.S. space program for 27 years with Florida Today. His coverage for Florida Today also appeared in USA Today, and 80 other newspapers across the United States. Todd earned a bachelor's degree in English literature, journalism and fiction from the University of Cincinnati and also served as Florida Today's Kennedy Space Center Bureau Chief during his tenure at Florida Today. Halvorson has been an independent aerospace journalist since 2013.