Remembering a Needless Tragedy

>> Monday, February 1, 2010

I wrote this for a different blog a year ago today. I can't improve on it, not because I don't have more to say, but because I don't want to go on forever. It is deeply personal to me.

This is the hardest anniversary for me. Not that the others weren’t just as tragic, just as painful, that those lost weren’t just as brave and their deaths just as untimely. But I wasn’t even born when Apollo 1 burned so horribly. And I was just a kid in college when Challenger was torn to pieces. I wasn’t responsible.

But STS-107 was my flight. I was the EVA Safety Flight Lead for this flight. I knew the crew personally. I knew the team supporting them. I’d watched them practice in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. I was there as the flight went through delay after delay. I went in the Mission Evaluation Room (one of the back rooms at Mission Control that supports “the Front Room”) and spoke to the folks manning the safety console every day. There were no scheduled EVAs so I wasn’t working shift. In fact, unless a contingency EVA was needed, neither was I. But I checked in physically at least once a day.

And I never saw this coming. I never heard any of the feverish concerns going on in different areas. And, sadly, I wasn’t even watching the landing. After all, nothing had gone wrong.

I was actually sleeping in, that morning of February 1, 2003. My husband of only a few months had (and this never happens) gotten up early that Saturday morning to watch cartoons. I was barely pregnant at the time - I don’t think I even knew it yet - and was feeling lazy. My daughter was at her father’s house that weekend. And Lee called out to me from the living room. “Uh, hon, I think the Shuttle just disintegrated.”

“Don’t even joke about that,” I snapped.

“I’m not joking.”

I may have mispoken when I said I never saw it coming. I had dreamed of it and it was one of those extremely rare dreams of mine that I remembered: a Shuttle coming in and breaking into fiery pieces. Whatever dreams I might have generally, I have no remembrance of them when I wake up. But this one, I remembered.

I had been worried about a potential risk. The program and my management had become comfortable with what they knew. I had not. But I had moved on to a different area and only kept track of what was going on sporadically. And I had dreamed of just such a disaster.

Of course, there is considerable evidence that the culprit that damaged the sensitive RCC panels was foam, rather than what had worried me, but that didn’t make it better. We’d been hit by foam repeatedly over the years and had talked ourselves out of worrying about it. We saw the hit before we landed, and we didn’t do more. All of this is well documented in the CAIB report . We fell into the same trap and the same causes culture-wise were cited in the CAIB report that we had heard in the Rogers Commission report from Challenger.

When Columbia reentered, the plasma began burning through the wing, first tearing off the protective RCC panel, then tearing through the structure, hydraulics and wiring, even the tire, behind it. In minutes, the Orbiter began to break up and rain debris over Texas and Louisiana.

To be honest, I’m not sure that we could have saved this crew if we had recognized the danger before they came down. I know we would have tried, would have pulled out all the stops, killed ourselves to save them if we had known what was to happen. I believe that absolutely. But, and this is the lesson we need to take forward into our future endeavors, the best way to have saved them was to keep this from happening.

We learned a great deal in the years that followed this tragedy, more about the materials we use to protect the Shuttle and the limitations and capabilities we have of bringing the Shuttle down safely if something like this ever happens again. And we know more about the risks that scared me and about the foam and ice on the ET and we have steps to address that, too.

Seven Astronauts paid for that lesson: Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, and Laurel Clark. I must also note two others who died during recovery efforts: Jules F. Mier Jr. and Charles Krenek

Have we learned enough to preclude a recurrence? I don’t know. I hope so. I hope we tuck the lessons like Apollo, Challenger and Columbia in the corner of our minds whatever else we do and we resolved “Never again!” I don’t want us to grow complacent that such tragedies are inevitable, the price of going where no man has gone before. I want us to kick and fight and claw our way forward, unwilling to give an inch to fate, unwilling to accept defeat and any more deaths.

In the end, time will be the true judge on how well we have learned from these tragedies. Here’s hoping this is truly the last for human spaceflight. According to our previous Space Shuttle Program Manager , we still have work to do.

More resources

CAIB Report
CAIB Hearing transcripts
Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report
Stifling Dissent

18 Responses to “Remembering NASA’s tragedies - Columbia Accident”

  1. Monica on 01 Feb 2009 at 4:41 pm

    I still remember - as just a normal citizen who felt a loss as well.


    Thank you for writing on this.

  2. Roy Hilbinger on 01 Feb 2009 at 6:49 pm

    I followed your link to Wayne Hale’s blog and watched the video he linked to. Yeah, that’s not good. And the scary thing is, NASA isn’t the only institution/company that runs that way. I’ve worked in retail for 30 years, and I’ve run into the scenario depicted in the video twice - with FW Woolworth’s and with The Home Depot, two of the worst-run companies I’ve ever had the misfortune to work for and observe. And of course, these days Woolworth’s is defunct and THD massively downsizes every couple of months (and I’ll be willing to bet - you heard it here first - that THD files for Chapter 11 within the next 6 months).

    I’m really hoping the scenario in the video isn’t widespread in NASA. If it is, that’s scary! I’ve been through that “proper channels” and “that’s really not how we do things here” BS too many times, that pressure to conform, conform, conform, don’t make waves, don’t stick your head up above the herd. If that’s how NASA’s being run, it needs an overhaul, now. A space program has to, by its very nature, be open to innovation and the open sharing of ideas. If it regularly squashes that, it’s doomed.

    What scares me even more is that you’ve run into that pushing safety. Safety should be hard-wired into every consideration NASA makes. If safety concerns are getting the “yeah, yeah, yeah, we know, we’ll deal with it” treatment, something is dreadfully wrong, and something needs to be done to address it. I sincerely hope that the scenario in the video isn’t widespread in NASA. And if it is, I hope Wayne sent a copy of that video to every director in NASA.

    And finally, big hugs to you on a day that I know is a bad, bad anniversary for you.

  3. stephanieebarr on 01 Feb 2009 at 7:59 pm

    These we were losses for all of us, M. This is our program; it belongs to all of us. This wasn’t my personal loss. It was a loss for all of us.

    Thank you for your kind words.

  4. stephanieebarr on 01 Feb 2009 at 8:18 pm

    I think this kind of thinking is more widespread than NASA, assuredly. If other agencies and government offices (or even the public as a whole) were willing to question authority more seriously, perhaps we wouldn’t be in the wars we’re in or the financial nightmare we’re in.

    Truth is, I think this kind of thinking is widespread in many places, many avenues.

    I don’t want you to think I spent eight years in safety and was always obstructed - far from it. There are good reasons for pushback as well, but, one thing I discovered was that, if I could convince the program that what I wanted WAS the right thing to do, I never had to fight that battle again. In many organizations, that isn’t the case. And they didn’t have to be told again. They made that change part and parcel of their existing workload.

    There are some great people working for NASA, some of the most remarkable minds and people, most with superlative ethics. But, no, there are still problems. I hope we learn from videos like this.

    And thanks for the hugs. I’ll take ‘em.

  5. Brian on 02 Feb 2009 at 12:57 am

    “I know we would have tried, would have pulled out all the stops, killed ourselves to save them if we had known what was to happen. I believe that absolutely.”

    Stephanie, I believe this absolutely too. I have tremendous admiration for people in NASA and don’t question their dedication. The problem is that it is a human organization, that has inherent human problems. Yet the amazing part for me is is not the flaws, but seeing people rise above their short-comings to do incredible things on behalf of others. I have the same respect for firefighters, policemen, and soldiers who risk their lives for the sake of others. Each of these organizations, like NASA, has flaws, sometimes deep flaws. But despite the flaws, there are individuals and teams who perform astonishing feats that make me ever grateful. Not complacent. But grateful.

    Peace to you on this terrible day.

  6. stephanieebarron 02 Feb 2009 at 1:05 am

    Thanks, Brian.

  7. flit on 02 Feb 2009 at 1:12 am

    Definitely a harsh way to make the point that safety has to come first :(

    I had no connection to any of it and it sickened me…. can’t imagine how people that worked anywhere near any of it managed… the horrible sense of loss

  8. ravyn on 02 Feb 2009 at 1:18 am

    I’m not sure what I can say that hasn’t already been said.

    I hope in the future you have a chance to change things and see your impact on them–to know that what you’ve learned, that what you’re willing to share now, prevents something much worse from unfolding. That you can see the fruits of the changes you’ve made already, and that you find peace from it.

    Thank you for writing this. My thoughts are with you.

  9. attygnorris on 02 Feb 2009 at 2:22 am

    Oh, wow, Stephanie. Such a personal recount of the events of this tragedy. Since it was your flight and you knew the crew personally, I know this had to be really hard to write about… I’m so sorry. I hope, as you do, that enough was learned to prevent a recurrence. Thanks for sharing this.


  10. stephanieebarr on 02 Feb 2009 at 8:12 am

    Learning by attrition is always painful, flit. Thanks

    My thanks also to you, Davida and ravyn. I’m not alone in being torn by this. Every year at the memorial, tears are shed. Nor am I alone in wanting this to be the last tragedy NASA ever has, to honor those who died and to reward the trust placed in us by the people who fund this: the citizens of the United States. This is their space program. I appreciate your sympathy.

  11. mpaulin on 02 Feb 2009 at 7:02 pm

    It was a sad day for all. I love the space flight program and I was at work when this happened. Thanks for sharing this post.

  12. Cambios on 02 Feb 2009 at 10:01 pm

    This was as truly horrible tragedy. Our astronauts are some of the best, brightest, and bravest people of our nation. To lose any of them is just unrecoverable.

    Thanks for writing this point to remind us all of the anniversary.

    Muckbeast - Game Design and Online Worlds

  13. TLE on 03 Feb 2009 at 6:22 am

    I wasn’t expecting to read a personal account of what happened. I thought it was just about the tragedy, not such a close take on it. It does make a huge difference for with time, these things become numbers and then we forget the lessons again.

    Thanks for taking the time to write about this. May we all remember.

  14. stephanieebarr on 03 Feb 2009 at 9:40 am

    It is a hard thing for me to write about and I still get weepy when I do. Heck, I still get weepy when a Shuttle lands safely on the runway.

    I mentioned, on a previous post, that we had a sacred trust to do everything in our power to keep these brave and talented people alive. I sincerely hope I never have to add another sad anniversary to my list.

    Thank you for the kind words, mpaulin, Cambios and TLE.

  15. Adrian on 03 Feb 2009 at 10:24 pm

    I’m going to say something totally obvious here that is in no way intended to diminish the feelings everyone must have remembering incredibly brave people losing their lives in such a “spectacular” way. The fatality rate per astronaut has obviously been way higher than the fatality rate per traveller on the highways. But if we only cared about numbers of fatalities, we would put even more effort into reducing the more than 40,000 fatalities that occur each year on USA roads alone. And I don’t remember the details of the helicopter crash that killed the last two you mention, Stephanie, but somehow that makes me feel even more sick than the immediate Columbia tragedy itself, because it should surely have been easier to avoid. Ultimately I find it completely astonishing that anyone makes it out into space and back again, ever.

  16. stephanieebarr on 03 Feb 2009 at 10:57 pm

    There are thousands of preventable deaths each year for any number of causes, Adrian, and I don’t think your comment diminishes anything. I try to do my part there, too, but driving sensibly and when necessary only and I never EVER drive while impaired. But your point is not lost.

    There are people dying all over the world who don’t have to. Their causes and their deaths are not less tragic and I think you were right to remind us of that.

  17. Bob on 04 Feb 2009 at 6:29 pm

    I remember it well, I was stunned wen I saw it on tv. The report you linked to was very interesting. There will be more loss of life no matter how vigilant everybody is,when you are talking about space there are just to many unknowns. In Gus Grissom’s own words,

    “The conquest of space is worth the risk of life, our God given curiosity will force us to go there ourselves, because in the final analysis only man can fully evaluate the Moon in terms understandable to other men.” you can replace moon with whatever term you want, thing is there is a risk and the astronauts now about it and accept it, we can only minimize it, not remove it by being ever vigilant.

  18. stephanieebarr on 04 Feb 2009 at 9:26 pm

    I agree with that. All the more reason, since we can’t remove risk, not to let our own actions add to it.


  • Jeff King

    Yea i remember, very sad indeed.

    I’ve been on jobs where guys have died. One second they’re there... poof, they’re gone. All because they either they didn't follow safety protocols or the person responsible for the accident... didn't follow the safety protocol.
    It’s hard to get over, especially when you see people that failed to learn the lesson and commit the same mistakes, disregarding the protocols all over again.
    Thx for sharing.

  • The Mother


  • Aron Sora

    You have to read at least the beginning chapters of the book Space Rescue. Even if you had detached, there was little to no rescue infrastructure. You would have had a month to scramble a shuttle flight and make the riskiest shuttle flight yet on a system that didn't have to to get retrofitted. This disaster showed us not only the problems with the shuttle and NASA culture, but it showed us out lack of ability to rescue. But, there was so much good that came of it. Our rescue ability has been improved and every space flight reentering will be inspected.

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