Columbia’s legacy reminds NASA to avoid being distracted from future mission

by Chris Bergin

On February 1, 2003, NASA suffered a blow which is still felt today, both from a workforce and directional standpoint. The disaster – which not only claimed the lives of seven astronauts but also that of NASA’s flagship Shuttle – ultimately led to the current transitional status of having no domestic launch capability until the middle of the decade. Yet the lasting memory of Columbia continues to provide an undercurrent of motivation to honor the fallen heroes of the STS-107 mission.

NASA’s Remembrance:

This time of year serves to remind the human race that there is nothing routine about space flight, with three tragic anniversaries – Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia – all falling within five calendar days of each other early into each new year.

While the accidents, their causes, and the drive to mitigate repeat disasters are all well documented, the reminder – marked by NASA’s Day of Remembrance on the last Thursday of each January – serves to remind the current space program workforce that they have a job to do: to ensure no more names are added to the list of the fallen astronaut heroes.

KSC Director Bob Cabana knows what it’s like to put his life on the line for a mission into space. The retired USMC Colonel flew on four Space Shuttle missions and personally knew some of the lost heroes. He also was in charge of the spaceport that witnessed the final launches of the three surviving orbiters, each of which returned their crews home safely.

“Each year as I pause on our Day of Remembrance to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice in our quest to explore space, I dedicate myself to ensuring that I do my very best to help prevent the loss of another life, whether as a crew member or in the line of duty supporting America’s space program,” noted Director Cabana in an address to the workforce.

“The business we are in is very demanding and terribly unforgiving of any mistakes we make.

“After laying the wreath, I took time to read the names on the mirror. They were some of my closest friends. They trusted us to do our best to protect them and keep them safe; they left loved ones behind who will always have an empty space that they once filled.”

KSC is currently transitioning to launch humans into space once again. As much as the new vehicles – ranging from commercial spaceships to NASA’s Orion capsule via the Space Launch System (SLS) – will be deemed “safer” than the Space Shuttle, it is unlikely the word “safe” will be taken for granted for decades to come, at least not when it involves sending crews uphill, riding on top of an explosion.

While the reminders this time of year are painful, the lessons from the three major disasters serve as motivation to ensure no more mistakes, to bring each crew back home safely and avoid another disaster which may result in the end of NASA in this risk adverse era.

“As we transition to a new future of commercial space operations and exploration beyond Earth, we cannot forget the lessons of our past,” added Director Cabana.

“They must be captured and passed on to ensure we do not repeat the same mistakes; that we do not take for granted our ability to launch humans into orbit; that just because we escaped harm in the past, it is no justification for success in the future; and that we have no hesitancy to share our concerns with anyone above or below us in the chain of command when it comes to the processing of critical space hardware that impacts the lives of our crew members, coworkers, and ourselves.

“We do amazing things at KSC, and we will continue to excel in the future because we have a culture of trust and integrity that binds us together. Let’s not lose that. Let’s not add any more names to the mirror. Let’s continue to do our best to ensure the health and safety of our crews and everyone else who works here at KSC.

“Thank you for your dedication to NASA, to KSC, and to human space exploration.”

Columbia’s loss remains the freshest in our minds. The beloved flagship which pioneered the Space Shuttle Program earned high praise from veteran commander John Young for her debut mission in 1981 and again from her inaugural pilot Bob Crippen who delivered a highly emotional tribute to Columbia during STS-107’s memorial speech – an amazing human tribute to a machine, one which is unlikely to be surpassed.
To vast amounts of people, both those who worked with the orbiters and those which followed their missions, the orbiters were living machines, almost differently sentient via their own personalities and quirks driven by a willingness to fight against the laws of physics to protect their crews.

Columbia had won that battle 27 times previous, before being mortally wounded during STS-107’s launch – a wound that sealed her fate during reentry 16 days later. Despite the gaping wound in her left wing, Columbia fought to the last during those final moments nine years ago today, as recognized by one of her engineers.
“Columbia’s lasting memorial in my eyes was her bravery that often gets over-looked,” noted one United Space Alliance engineer assigned to Columbia and who asked not to be named. “It was like she knew. I know that may sound strange – given she’s a machine, but I can’t – no matter how many times I look at the data – work out how she stayed mainly in one piece for so long, with her left wing terribly mis-shaped.
“Even with what we believe was – and I pray – an unconscious crew, and with her structure collapsing all around her, she still made multiple RCS (Reaction Control System) firings and rudder movements, fighting all the way to try and correct the drag. She should have been pulled over before she finally broke up, but she fought back, again and again.
“When I first got to see the data, I cried my eyes out. She was so brave to the end – I’m so proud of her and I’ll never forget her.”

Nine years later, Columbia continues to remind KSC’s current workforce of the need to work toward ensuring their future vehicles are in the best possible state for successfully launching and returning crews. Her remains continue to be held in a special room inside the very Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) she and her surviving sisters were processed in for their missions.

However, Columbia’s AND Challenger’s spirits remain in space – and while it may take a stretch of the imagination, their memories were honored as they watched over each one of their three sisters as Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis each enjoyed their victory laps around the planet one final time before descending into the atmosphere to conclude their service lives with a successful reentry and landing.

Sadly, the future which Columbia strived to create is currently less than desirable. As the U.S. Space Agency struggles to find a proper sense of direction, the future of NASA and humanity’s crewed exploration of space remains locked in PowerPoints and developmental contracts.

While political bickering continues over how to budget the future, its impact on the relatively small percentage of funding for what remains an admired space program threatens to disrespect the very heroes honored at this time of year.

Such frustrations were brilliantly captured in an article written by former SSP manager Wayne Hale.

“Do you think that they (the fallen astronauts) would be proud of their country which can no longer send humans into space? Do you think they would be proud of their space agency which has no coherent plan to continue with exploration?” Mr. Hale wrote in on his site.

“Do you think that they would be proud of their government which has fallen into bickering so badly that even the half of 1 percent of the federal budget that used to enable the future has been significantly reduced?  Or do you think that they would be proud of a commercial sector that is long on PR and short on delivering new commercial spacecraft?”
A proud nation such as the United States needs to honor its heroes and provide the inspiration of the next generation to step up to the plate to become part of the legacy and push forward humanity’s future in space.

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To read about the orbiters –  from birth, processing, every single mission, through to retirement, click here for the links:

(Images: NASA, L2, Associated Press).

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