Very Human Machine

Eight precious individuals were lost on 1 February 2003.

It is this fact that is so often overlooked, for in addition to Husband, McCool, Brown, Chawla, Anderson, Clark and Ramon, the world lost its pioneering Space Shuttle. Columbia was near the end of her 28th flight and, despite her distress, fought with valiant and remarkably 'human-like' characteristics to save her crew. She had repeatedly ordered elevon adjustments to cope with increasing aerodynamic drag on her left wing, she had commanded RCS firings in a desperate bid to remain on course and she had kept the astronauts alive for at least the first few seconds after her fuselage broke apart.

She ''was doing well . . . but losing the battle,'' said Shuttle manager Ron Dittemore at an emotional press conference on 5 February. Added Rick Searfoss: ''It was beyond her control and she was trying. It's a poignant thought for me to think about that.'' For his STS-90 crewmate Jay Buckey, however, justifiable pride in Columbia's achievements was tinged with heartbroken sadness at being robbed of the chance to take his grandchildren to see her someday in an aerospace museum. ''Columbia is a part of us,'' Buckey said. ''It was a privilege to have been on the Columbia.''

STS-109 veteran Duane 'Digger' Carey, who left the astronaut corps in 2004 to pursue around-the-world motorcycling, also regarded flying NASA's oldest Shuttle as a ''humbling experience'', adding that, due to its sheer complexity, ''there were an awful lot of smart folks who came before us and more or less wrote the book on how to operate the machine.'' He and Mike Massimino visited KSC in April 2003 to view debris from the ship they had flown a year earlier. ''It was really moving to see all those pieces laid out,'' Massimino said later. ''It was a day I'll never forget.''

In spite of her achievements, she earned a reputation for being notoriously difficult to prepare for flight, but that as soon as she lifted off she performed beautifully. John Young, one of those who 'wrote the book' on how to operate her, was in Mission Control when she broke up. ''I knew the instant we lost the trajectory [data] that we had lost the vehicle,'' he said. ''It was a good vehicle.'' Nonetheless, he stressed it was ''not an operational vehicle and [NASA] needs to stop treating it like one. This is still an experimental vehicle. STS-107 proved that pretty well.''

Columbia was the best orbiter to fly through the atmosphere, according to Ken Cockrell, who rode all four Shuttles and commanded STS-80 in late 1996. ''Endeavour and Discovery and Columbia are solid as a rock after the boosters come off during ascent. They're just smooth. It's like you're in an electrically powered vehicle,'' he said in the spring of 2002, adding that ''Columbia is the best glider and probably the easiest one to land because it's a little heavier, a little smoother aerodynamically and it glides just a tiny bit better ... [which] makes it easier to make a sweet landing.''

''Occasionally, good ships can run aground,'' said STS-87's Winston Scott. ''It depends on the winds, the weather, the hands of fate and that's exactly what happened to Columbia.'' Congressman Bill Nelson, who flew STS-61C, called her ''a beautiful old girl. When [we came] back in that searing heat of re-entry, we were on the night side of the Earth and I remember being stunned when I looked out the window and it was daylight . . . then I realised it was that hot plasma that had enveloped the orbiter and it was this beautiful tangerine pink, almost like it was at sunrise . . . ''

''You rely on those machines for your life,'' remarked Rick Searfoss. ''It felt like a home, being protected with no fear. It's somewhat akin to the way old sailors in clipper ships were brought home safely from a journey. When [Columbia] was lost, it affected me in that way.''

''She was often bad-mouthed for being a little heavy on the rear end,''

remembered STS-1 Pilot Bob Crippen at a KSC memorial on 7 February 2003, ''but many of us can relate to that. Many said she was old and past her prime, [but she] had a great many missions ahead of her. She, along with her crew, had their life snuffed out in her prime.'' Columbia's next mission would have been a trip to the International Space Station in November 2003, led by astronaut Scott Kelly. He provided some insights into Rick Husband's final actions on board the venerable ship.

''He was probably focusing on what he was trained for,'' Kelly told a CBS journalist in March 2003, ''and that is to respond to whatever malfunctions they had in the best way he could.'' No one doubted Husband's capabilities. ''You really only need to know two things,'' said Jim Halsell, one of few people to have flown Columbia three times. ''First: we recruited him into the Astronaut Office because of his wide-known reputation within the Air Force. Second: Rick was offered his own Shuttle command after only one flight as a Pilot, instead of the standard two. He was that good."

He was not reckless or unaware of the risks involved. ''We all knew the risks because of Challenger, but we all have a passion for it,'' said Kevin Kregel, who flew Columbia twice and inspected her debris as part of his new job helping to design next-generation hypersonic spaceplanes. ''I flew [on STS-99] with a Japanese and a German. Just to think that 60 years ago, our parents were fighting each other and

Chief astronaut Kent Rominger, who commanded Rick Husband's STS-96 mission in mid-1999, speaks about the crew at a JSC memorial on 5 February 2003. Seated behind him, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe looks on.

now we're working together in space ...'' Fellow astronaut Jack Lousma agreed, adding that the risk of being killed ''is something that comes with the turf.''

Franklin Chang-Diaz, who holds a joint record with Jerry Ross for having flown into space seven times, went further. Speaking to children at Priceville Elementary School in Alabama in March 2003, he admitted that his profession was dangerous, but pointed out that it ''ensures our survival as a species. Our planet has six billion people and our resources like food and water are getting scarce. We need a presence in space to develop new ways and find new sources.'' Added Rick Searfoss: ''Humans aren't meant to grub around on the surface of the planet. Our destiny is to move beyond.''

Four-flight Shuttle veteran Dan Brandenstein was in Mission Control on the day Columbia disintegrated - not as an astronaut, but on behalf of aerospace contractor Lockheed, which had developed the workstations and equipment used by the flight controllers that day. ''You hope you don't have to go through it again in a lifetime,'' he said, remembering the Challenger disaster 17 years before. ''My role is somewhat different now, but anyone who has flown in space . . . recognises what it takes and the risks. It's very sad and it hits the families hard.''

Nor was it exclusively the families of the crew who were shattered by the tragedy; their colleagues in the Astronaut Office at JSC, who lived with the risks on a day-today basis, expressed their own feelings of devastation at the loss of people they regarded as family members. ''It's just a body blow to your psyche,'' STS-80 veteran Tom Jones told a Baltimore Sun journalist on 2 February. ''These are all my friends.'' He admitted, however, that there was no way Husband or his crewmates could have foreseen the catastrophe about to engulf them or do anything to prevent it.

For two other former Columbia fliers, the pain was even closer. Mike Lopez-Alegria was on board Endeavour for STS-113 in November 2002, the last fully successful mission before the disaster. He recalled with fondness NASA's oldest orbiter. ''She was a flagship of our fleet and she represented the Space Shuttle programme . . . our nation's human spaceflight efforts and, in part, our national pride,'' he said at the opening ceremony of a memorial fountain erected to the STS-107 crew at Clear Lake in Houston in March 2003. ''We are wounded, but we'll recover and return to flight, just as Columbia's crew would ask of us.''

Dave Wolf, a medical doctor who flew Columbia in 1993 and later spent four months on the Russian Mir space station, narrowly missed being selected to fly on Husband's mission. He was assigned instead to an International Space Station flight in October 2002. This mission also experienced foam falling from its External Tank, which hit an electronics box on one of the SRBs. Fortunately, Wolf's crew made it into orbit - and back home - safely. ''It's emotionally trying,'' he said. ''When you lose seven close people in your office, it has a large impact. This was a great group of folks.''

Jeff Ashby, another Columbia veteran, spoke at a memorial service in Lufkin, Texas, on 8 February. He recalled the warmth, humanity - and humour - of the STS-107 crew. ''They actually baked cakes for their training instructors on their birthdays,'' he told a congregation at the First Baptist Church. ''The crew mascot was a small furry hamster . . . that sang the 'Kung-Fu Fighting' song. They referred to their crew secretary as 'The Great and Powerful Roz' and they successfully convinced her that if she put candy on her desk, she'd see them more often. I remember the Astronaut [Office] Christmas party just a couple of months ago, and, soon after it began, it was evident that there was one area in the party - one table -that was a little livelier than most, and of course it was their crew. About an hour into the party, I went over to their table to kind of share in the joy that they had and was very quickly helped into a seat by Ilan Ramon, at which point his wife tattooed a small 'STS-107' emblem on my cheek! They were all wearing them!''

Their secretary, Roz Hobgood, was virtually an eighth crew member. ''I was greeted with hugs in the morning,'' she told an Amarillo Globe journalist. ''Every day I had candy or flowers.'' She recalled helping Rick Husband clear boxes when he moved into his new office, talking to Mike Anderson about his beloved Porsche, taking her first trip in a hot-air balloon thanks to Dave Brown, tackling Kalpana Chawla's brain-teasing questions, enjoying the childlike enthusiasm of Willie McCool and the warm friendship of Laurel Clark . . . and even mistakenly thinking Ilan Ramon was dyslexic when he wrote, it seemed, 'backwards' in Hebrew!

Two Japanese astronauts - one of whom flew with Chawla, the other who served as Deputy Mission Scientist for STS-107 - expressed their sorrow and stories of the lost crew members. ''I can readily imagine Mike [Anderson] sitting comfortably in discussion with Aristotle on issues of scientific knowledge,'' said Chiaki Mukai, a veteran of two Shuttle flights, including one trip on board Columbia, ''for Mike was at his heart a philosopher . . . a most kind and gracious philosopher.'' Takao Doi agreed, describing Anderson as ''calm and composed . . . [with] a heart filled with warmth'' and his fallen crewmate Chawla as ''a person overflowing with gentleness and charm''.

Despite the horrific tragedy, very few astronauts expressed doubts about the value of their work and barely a handful have resigned from the corps. Columbia's loss did, however, force some soul-searching, particularly from the point of view of the astronauts' families. Mike Massimino remarked that, for his children, the accident was ''kind of right in your face. This is what Daddy does for a living'', but after discussing his future with his wife Carola he decided to remain on active flight status. ''I like the job day to day,'' he said. ''Flying in space is the icing on the cake.''

Scott Altman had no reservations about the levels of safety put in place before each flight. ''Every time that I strapped on the Shuttle'', he said, ''I felt confident everybody had done what I thought was everything possible to make sure we were ready to go.'' However, he added, ''maybe we just haven't imagined enough what could go wrong. As you try to make safety improvements, you go at what you perceive are the biggest risks. Was it a bad decision to go after things that were more of a threat before? I'm not sure I could say it was.''

''Safety and reliability have to be designed into systems,'' pointed out Tom Henricks, who flew Columbia twice, once in the Pilot's seat and later as Commander. ''If that's done properly, it reduces the requirement of inspections. Every time you touch a system like that you are opening yourself up [to] breaking the components. You're better off just leaving it alone. One reason you saw the number of [Shuttle] inspections decrease over time was because things were designed better.'' However, Henricks felt that safety was compromised and NASA began accepting too many risks for his liking.

After returning from his fourth flight, STS-78, he had been offered the chance to command the final Shuttle docking mission to the Russian Mir space station, but turned it down due to safety concerns. ''The pendulum [after the Challenger disaster] had swung to as conservative as they could make it,'' he said, ''but then that pendulum started swinging back almost immediately and it was very prevalent by the time we were going to Mir. We were still sending Americans to Mir after a fire and a collision. Near the post-Challenger timeframe, that wouldn't have happened.''

Much has been written about Columbia and her achievements. She flew 28 times, making her the second most-flown orbiter after Discovery, and spent over 300 days in orbit. One hundred and twenty-six men and women have gazed Earthward from her windows, of whom 26 flew her twice and four astronauts - Tammy Jernigan, Jim Halsell, Don Thomas and Rick Linnehan - have served on board her three times. She holds, and in all likelihood will continue to hold, the record for the longest Shuttle mission and even her last tragic flight established itself as the fourth-longest in the programme's history.

In the shadow of these and other awesome achievements, it is difficult to produce an epitaph that sums up both the ship herself and her final, fallen crew. Then, a few months after the Columbia disaster, NOLS guides John Kanengieter and Andy Cline spoke of the time they had spent with the STS-107 crew in the summer of 2001. Eager to learn exactly what a launch and re-entry 'felt' like, the two men asked the astronauts to describe it for them. Rick Husband and his crewmates, never ones to shy away from a challenge, did more than that.

Dressed in their backpacks, camping and walking gear, high in the mountains of Wyoming, they described for Kanengieter and Cline their activities on launch day, from suiting-up, to strapping into their seats on board Columbia, to the vigorous shaking as their spacecraft thundered skyward. Then, in a particularly poignant memory for Kanengieter and Cline, they described their positions and responsibilities during re-entry. Just as Laurel Clark's videotape showed, she, Chawla, Husband and McCool took their 'seats' in two lines on the flight deck, while Anderson, Brown and Ramon settled in another line into the locker-studded middeck for a smooth ride home.

''One of the things that struck me on 1 February,'' Cline said later, ''was when I was watching the Shuttle break up, one of the first thoughts [I had] was of them sitting in that line and knowing exactly where they were sitting - because they had let us experience that, beforehand. It was a magical moment and I'll always cherish that because, in my book, they always landed.''

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