Retired NASA flight director blogs about the aftermath of Columbia disaster

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.

Also read: The Space Review article that mentions Hale's role in the Columbia disaster.

Via Alexandra Witze


    1. I doubt it. The same management that would take corrective action due to a potential foam strike in space would also analyze the danger of foam strikes during launch. Apollo 13 was obvious. The management knew there was a problem. But when someone, even a flight director, tells the senior management there is potential problem due to design, they are going to be listened to and then kindly dismissed. After all, if there was a problem with the foam, there would have been some evidence in 100 or so flights, right? And engineering has already evaluated foam strikes as being safe, right? And aren’t you supposed to be doing your job instead questioning how others have done their jobs?

      I know this type of interaction from experience. Engineers are forced to PROVE there is a problem before management will act.

        1. They are everywhere. Look at the history for the Columbia accident. Engineers asked the DOD to use their secret tech for photographs. NASA management found out and stopped the requests.

          1. And the subcontractor that supplied the Challenger o-rings said go for launch when the CEO switched from his engineer “cap” to his management “cap”.

  1. “But being one of the good guys doesn’t mean you don’t feel guilty when something goes horribly wrong.”

    I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb when I say that I think that ‘being one of the good guys’ actually means that even if you are not one of the people actually responsible when things go wrong, you feel guilty when they do and what you suspect was wrong, actually turns out to be a significant contributor to the disaster.

    1. Yep, i suspect he will eternally wonder if they would still be alive if he had done just a bit more. While those that brushed him off may well have no issue sleeping for the rest of their days.

      1. Sense of guilt is only for those who has a conscience, those who feel bad knowing that someone was hurt and no one was able or did nothing to stop it.

        That is why assholes never feel guilty.

  2. In the paragraph of the post that begins “But being one of the good” it ends with “and after the Challenger disaster:”. But this post is about Columbia.

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