Scott Hubbard vividly remembers where he was on the day one of the deadliest tragedies in the history of space travel occurred.
Before he got out of bed on the morning of February 1, 2003, a radio broadcast announced that NASA’s Columbia space shuttle was “overdue” for its return to Earth.
“I had a feeling in my stomach like something was wrong,” he recalls.
The spacecraft, which launched two weeks ago from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center with seven astronauts on board, was due to touch down that morning.
But the login never came.
Columbia made her maiden voyage in April 1981 but disintegrated over Texas 16 minutes before her planned landing in Florida, killing her crew. They are Commander Rick Hubender; Pilot William McCool; Mission Specialists Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark, David Brown and Kalpana Chawla; and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut.
It marked the beginning of the end for the US space shuttle program, which lost seven astronauts in the 1986 Challenger disaster.
For Hubbard, a NASA veteran who served as director of the first Mars program, Columbia changed the way he thinks about rocket launches forever.
“When that low-frequency rumble, that pressure wave hits you, you’re in awe of the force that’s used to lift up from the gravity well of the Earth. But with Columbia’s experience, when I saw the launch if someone was on aboard, there is an added sense of anxiety: ‘Have I done everything possible to ensure the success of the mission?’”
The phone that changed everything
Even before the crew was confirmed missing, Hubbard received a call from the NASA administrator’s office asking him to investigate what had happened on behalf of the agency.
The administrator at the time was Sean O’Keefe, who was with the astronaut’s family when it became apparent that something went wrong.
“The mood went from excitement and anticipation to despair when it became clear that the shuttle would not be able to return,” he told Sky News.
“Normally, you’d set your watch to see when the shuttle would pass through the atmosphere. Like launch day, we had a countdown clock with these big numbers rolling down gradually.
“It arrived about two minutes after 00:00 – usually before you see the shuttle, and when the shuttle passes the sound barrier, you hear two pops, which tell you it’s about to touch down. But neither of the sonic booms Appear.”
The disintegration of Columbia has happened, its wreckage has rained down on Texas, and relatives of the crew wait by surprise at the Kennedy Space Center.
Soon after, officials launched an investigation.
Scott Hubbard, chosen as the only NASA representative on the investigative committee, worked with Air Force generals, admirals and former US astronauts to paint a detailed picture of how Columbia ended in tragedy.
“I know that if we are faced with a loss of crew, it will have the same impact on the agency as the Challenger accident did many years ago,” he said.
“So I went into it with the determination to do the best I could.”
“The Most Difficult Task”
The Colombian investigation is expected to last 30 days. It ended up taking six months.
Working seven days a week from a base outside the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Hubbard calls it his “toughest responsibility” in his 20 years at NASA.
“The first part was a very tragic search and recovery operation for the remains of the crew, so the families can get some relief,” he said. The remains of all seven astronauts were found.
About 25,000 people were involved in collecting debris from the wreckage, which was scattered across a 200-mile stretch from Dallas to the Louisiana border, O’Keeffe recalled.
Hubbard’s background in science and engineering led him to be assigned to focus on the technical causes of the accident.
“Initially, it was circumstantial evidence,” recalls Hubbard.
“There’s only one clear, high-resolution image of this piece of foam falling off the main fuel tank, hitting somewhere on the shuttle’s left wing, and ejecting a cloud of debris.”
The event occurred not during re-entry, but after launch on January 16 — 82 seconds into flight.
Mission Control notified the commander and the pilot, who were confident — because it had happened on previous missions — that there was no reason to panic during re-entry.
proving the cause of the tragedy
However, when Columbia re-entered the atmosphere, damage to the wings allowed “superheated gas” to enter, causing damage to the wings and subsequent disintegration of the entire space shuttle.
“Foam shedding has been happening since the first space shuttle flight 30 years ago,” Hubbard said.
“But while it was initially flagged as an in-flight anomaly, which was the most serious issue, it was ultimately considered a turnaround issue, just a maintenance issue, and was downgraded for its severity.
“We believe that, for a serious problem, this haphazard approach was one of the organizational causes of the accident.”
Due to “rejection” Among those interviewed during the investigation, Hubbard said he pushed for a test aimed at recreating the alleged anomaly and singled out a Texas research facility used to simulate birds striking aircraft components. Influence.
Over the course of several months, it was configured to meet the specifications of what happened in Columbia.
The test was carried out on live TV on July 7, 2003 – and the results were beyond doubt.
“It brought up two emotions in me at the same time,” recalls Hubbard.
“One was ‘yes, we proved it,’ and the other was, ‘oh my god, that’s how these people die’.
“That was… a long time.”
The full report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board — which O’Keeffe received 10 days before its release in August 2003 — made 29 recommendations to improve the safety of future space shuttle flights, all of which were adopted by NASA.
They include foam that falls from the outer tanks of the space shuttle during launch, which has been accepted by NASA engineers as standard of the curriculum and should no longer be allowed to happen.
The agency has not lost an astronaut during spaceflight since then.
“It’s a tough report,” O’Keeffe said. “Nothing is easy. It’s very critical, however, it’s what we need to hear.”
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Each January, NASA lays flowers and reads a eulogy at a memorial service at the Kennedy Space Center in memory of the victims of the Columbia and other astronauts that fell.
The site at Cape Canaveral has been a center of excitement since last November, when the launch of the Artemis mission kicked off NASA’s return to the moon for the first time in more than 50 years.
Space is also increasingly becoming a playground for private enterprise, with companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin setting themselves ambitious goals to go further than humans. It’s a worthwhile risk, O’Keefe said, but — despite the amazement many people witnessed when they witnessed the launch — the risks should never be blinded.
“The very nature of it scares me every time,” he admits. “Everyone who talks about a space shuttle launch being ‘routine’ – there’s no such thing. Every single one is a chance for disaster, that’s what it is.
“But over the course of human history, we’ve done some inherently dangerous things because our curiosity got the better of us.”
For Hubbard, who became chairman of SpaceX’s safety panel in 2012, and whose advice includes Elon Musk, the lessons learned from Columbia are increasingly important.
“Space is a hard thing to do, it’s difficult to put humans into space and we’ve been lucky that there have been relatively few disasters so far,” he told Sky News. (NASA has lost 15 astronauts during spaceflight: seven from Columbia and Challenger, and one, Michael Adams, on a suborbital flight in 1967.)
Hubbard said the Columbia experience “profoundly changed” the way he thinks about human exploration of space, but our collective ambition to go further and faster is only going in one direction.
“Any rocket you fire out there, you can’t say with certainty that it’s going to be okay,” O’Keeffe said. “But the alternative is: ‘Shall we not go?’ The answer is, you can’t be softhearted about it.”