4 in Mourning Deal With Shuttle’s Return
SPACE CENTER, Houston — Each man had an intimate tie to the Columbia disaster. Two were in Mission Control trying to save the shuttle and its crew, and two were 900 miles away at the Florida landing strip waiting for a spacecraft that would never come. For more than two years, these four NASA employees at Johnson Space Center have struggled with grief and guilt and dealt in their own way with the shuttle’s return to flight.
One will repeat his role as launch and entry flight director when Discovery blasts off soon. Two others will take part in the mission as well. The fourth, robbed of a wife when Columbia crashed, has dedicated his career to making future spacecraft safer.
Here are their stories.
Flight director LeRoy Cain dashed all hope for Columbia and its crew when he issued this chilling command to his Mission Control team: “Lock the doors.”
With those three words came a lockdown of Mission Control and a lengthy, gut-wrenching investigation into Columbia’s destruction as it headed home on Feb. 1, 2003.
Cain said a silent prayer for the seven dead astronauts and their families, before pulling the thick white binder from the bookshelf by his desk. The binder, containing contingency plans, still is there. And Cain will be at the same desk for Discovery’s upcoming liftoff and its return, still the most dangerous parts of a space shuttle flight. Liftoff is set for July 13.
Cain did not ask to reprise his role as launch and entry flight director for the first shuttle mission since the Columbia tragedy, but no one else was certified to do it. Besides, he was assigned the job well before Columbia went down.
Before taking on responsibility for this next shuttle mission and future ones, Cain, 41, underwent deep personal reflection. Why do this? Why is spaceflight important?
“I decided that if I wasn’t going to be able to come up with satisfactory answers … it would be very difficult for me to get back in, or continue if you will, in the business,” he says. “I’m here so you can guess what my answers to those questions were.”
Cain also had to cope with the accountability he felt for dismissing the possible damage Columbia’s left wing suffered when insulation foam hit it at liftoff. He went into Mission Control on landing day confident the spacecraft suffered no serious harm, but by the time the wing sensors started failing and communication was lost, he knew the battered wing was to blame.
Faith and family helped him get through the ugly first few weeks. His pastor reached out, and Cain’s flight controllers attended a worship service so they could heal together.
Cain expects the Columbia accident to cross his mind when he oversees Discovery’s re-entry. But he won’t dwell on it – it will be intense enough monitoring shuttle systems.
“I don’t look at this as closure. I look at this as a new beginning,” he says. “I truly do look at this as the next important opportunity for manned spaceflight.”
Charles Hobaugh’s deep, calming voice from Mission Control was the last one that the Columbia astronauts heard from the outside before they died.
He was the capcom, or capsule communicator for Columbia’s re-entry, a space shuttle pilot assigned to the normally coveted job of speaking to astronauts in flight.
On that Saturday morning in February 2003, though, no one replied. Hobaugh kept asking for a communication check with Columbia. “Comm check.”"Comm check.”"Comm check.” There was no reply, only silence.
What Hobaugh didn’t know – no one did – was that Columbia and its crew of seven were already gone, lost in a catastrophic breakup over Texas during re-entry.
It wasn’t until later that day, when the former Marine combat pilot called home and talked to his wife and four children, that his poise melted.
Like so many others, Hobaugh knew about the Columbia foam strike, but believed the experts who said it posed no danger to the seven astronauts, three of them fellow members of Hobaugh’s Astronaut Class of 1996.
“It’s just, unfortunately, a rough aspect of our job and it’s an understood thing that there’s going to be risk involved,” he says.
For Discovery’s upcoming flight to the international space station, Hobaugh, 43, will once again serve as a capcom, but only during the segment of the mission involving the space station. Discovery’s astronauts will pay a visit there.
Hobaugh would have liked to resurrect his role as shuttle capcom for Discovery’s re-entry, but the job was already taken. Besides, he is assigned as shuttle pilot to a mission next year, and soon will be busy training for that.
He may poke his head into shuttle Mission Control during Discovery’s re-entry.
“You want to, I don’t want to say even the score … you want to just finish out what you started,” he says. “You want your landings to equal your launches. You’ll never have that, but at least you’ll have another chance to do it the right way and see them back.”
To Wayne Hale’s “everlasting shame,” his name appears prominently in the Columbia accident investigation report – the chapter on NASA’s woeful decision-making during the doomed flight.
Hale had just taken a new launch job in Cape Canaveral, Fla. at the beginning of 2003, after years as a flight director in Houston. Worried engineers approached him the day after Columbia’s liftoff, asking him to request spy satellite pictures of Columbia’s left wing. Five days passed before he put in a request – to the wrong Defense Department representative.
The request ended up being squashed by the head of the shuttle mission management team, Linda Ham. Hale did not fight her decision and was waiting for Columbia at the Cape Canaveral landing strip that awful morning.
Ham was demoted after the accident and Hale was promoted, becoming deputy shuttle program manager and chairman of the revamped mission management team. He will give the final “go” for Discovery’s launch and make all key decisions during the 12-day flight.
As management team leader, he’s taken it upon himself to improve the safety culture that crumbled during Columbia’s doomed voyage.
“I fully intend that when we fly the shuttle, it will be as safe as it can possibly be because I never want to go to another astronaut memorial service and I never want to have my name in another accident investigation report,” Hale says.
“We are in a risky business and I understand that risky business. But there will be no corners cut on my watch.”
Hale still feels a great deal of responsibility and some level of guilt for his role in the Columbia mission.
“Could I have done more? Absolutely. Do I wish I could turn the hands of the clock back and change some of the things that I did or some of the other people did? Absolutely. But I don’t obsess over it.”
Hale, an engineer at Johnson Space Center since 1978, finds work therapeutic.
“If we were to quit and never fly in space again, then I think I would feel a lot worse,” he says. “Now that sounds callous … which is not my intent at all. But surely if we can fix this and fly safely, there will be some redemption there.”
Dr. Jon Clark thinks every day about quitting his job as a NASA neurologist. But he doesn’t.
“I’ve got my very, very, very, very dedicated reason” for staying at Johnson Space Center: spacecraft survival.
Clark’s astronaut wife, Laurel, died aboard Columbia.
Little more can be done to improve the three remaining shuttles before they are retired in five years, although the lessons of Columbia could help a future crew faced with a similar re-entry crisis, Clark says.
But there’s the follow-on crew exploration vehicle to worry about, the vessel that will start out in orbit and ultimately aim for the moon and Mars.
Toward that end, Clark and a team of injury-analysis experts spent several days in February sifting through the Columbia wreckage that’s stored at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. They studied what was left of the crew cabin, where Laurel Clark and her six fellow astronauts sat during their catastrophic re-entry two years earlier almost to the day.
Clark says the emotional part of going through the wreckage was overcome by the importance of the job.
“Did the crew perform switch throws that might have made it worse? There are things about that that may actually have been the case,” he says. “Do you want to tell the next crew that if they’re in a horrible loss situation in the shuttle, to do this or not do that?”
Clark, 52, vows he will never work another space shuttle mission as a flight surgeon. Columbia’s flight – with his wife on board – was his last.
“One aspect of me says move on, and the other says well, you know, you’ve got to show your support,” Clark says. “Really, the support I’m showing is for the crew and their bravery.”
He continues to be troubled by what he believes is NASA “making appearances of improvement” without substantive change. “That bothers me immensely.”
Despite conflicted feelings, he plans to join other family members of the Columbia astronauts for Discovery’s July launch. But his only child, 10-year-old Iain, won’t. The boy doesn’t want to go back to the place where he saw his mother leave Earth, never to return.
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