On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia broke up in the sky over Texas, bits and pieces falling onto at least two states. All seven astronauts on board died. As we close in on the 10-year anniversary of the disaster, you can expect lots of media outlets and experts to start offering their take on what happened and what we've learned from it. But there's one voice that you should really be listening to ... and he's speaking already.
Wayne Hale was a flight director on the space shuttle for 40 or 41 missions (His blog says 40, his NASA bio says 41). Flight controllers are the people who manage a space flight—they deal with the logistics, monitor all the various systems of the vehicle, make the decision to launch or abort, and deal with trouble-shooting. In other words, they play a key role in safety, and the flight director is the person in charge of all the flight controllers.
More importantly, Wayne Hale is one of the people who suspected something might be wrong with Columbia before its fatal reentry, and tried to get his superiors at NASA to pay attention to the risks. Here's Dwayne Day writing at The Space Review:
During the Columbia accident investigation I was one of over 100 staff members who worked for the CAIB (not all of them worked simultaneously, and for the many months I was there, the staff probably numbered no more than 50–60). There were so many aspects to the investigation that it was impossible to follow them all, and my responsibility was for policy, history, and budget, and later, some of the issues concerning schedule pressure. But I remember one afternoon when I was talking with an Air Force colonel skilled in aircraft accident investigations when Hale’s name came up and I asked how Hale had been involved in the accident. The colonel explained how Hale had been one of the people who had been concerned about the foam strike during the flight and had tried to obtain on-orbit imagery of the orbiter during its mission, only to be rebuffed by upper level managers. Then, after a short pause, the colonel added: “Hale was one of the good guys.”
But being one of the good guys doesn't mean you don't feel guilty when something goes horribly wrong. On Tuesday, Hale posted on his blog about the Columbia disaster and what is going on in his head as the anniversary creeps closer. It's a sad, poignant post, and Hale promises it's just the beginning of a series of articles addressing his experiences before, during, and after the Challenger disaster:
All of this has brought the searing memories from a decade ago into the forefront of my mind. Not that those memories has ever left me; the memories of early 2003. I was intimately involved in the events leading up to the Columbia tragedy so maybe that is to be expected. But often in the wee hours of the morning when sleep fails, the questions return: why did it happen, how did we allow it to happen, and what could I have done to prevent it.
Some others who lived through those days remember things from different perspectives, they had different experiences, but – somewhat frighteningly – remember events we shared in common in different ways. The passage of time, too, is riddling my memories with holes like Swiss cheese. Names escape me, details are getting fuzzy, and though concentrated thought can bring some things back from the recesses, others are gone forever. Some memories stand out like a lightning bolt in a dark night; many others of those events are gone into the darkness. If I am ever to write down my experience, the time is now.
Basically, you should bookmark Wayne Hale's blog and check it frequently. He'll be posting regularly, over the next several months, and I'm am certain you'll want to read the full series.
Via Alexandra Witze
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.