NASA has revealed that the Columbia crew were  not told that the shuttle had been damaged and  they might not survive  re-entry.

The seven astronauts who died will be  remembered at a public memorial service on the 10th anniversary of the disaster  this Friday at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

The shuttle was headed home from a 16-day science mission when it broke apart over Texas on February 1, 2003,  because of  damage to its left wing.

Ten years ago, experts at NASA’s mission control faced the terrible decision over whether to let the astronauts  know  that they may die on re-entry or face orbiting in space until the oxygen ran  out.

Those on the ground decided that it would be  better if the crew were spared knowledge of the risks.

There was no way to repair any  suspected  damage – the crew were far from the International Space  Station and had no  robotic arm for repairs. It would have taken too long to send  up another  shuttle to rescue them.

Wayne Hale, who went on to become space  shuttle program manager, has written on his blog about  the fateful day.

Mr Hale writes: ‘After one of the  MMTs  (Mission Management Team) when possible damage to the orbiter was  discussed, he  (Flight Director Jon Harpold) gave me his opinion: ”You  know, there is nothing  we can do about damage to the TPS (Thermal  Protection System).’

‘”If it has been damaged it’s probably better  not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don’t you  think it would  be better for them to have a happy successful flight and  die unexpectedly  during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there  was nothing to be done,  until the air ran out?”‘

When Mission Control had it confirmed that  the shuttle had broken up over Texas, Flight Director Leroy Cain ordered the room on  lock-down and all computer data saved for later investigation.

Mr Hale is the only person at NASA who  publicly accepted blame, according to ABC.

NASA flights resumed two years later and the  shuttles were retired in 2011.

As the memorial takes place on Friday, 12  children will remember the parents they lost. A decade later, the youngest is  now 15 and the oldest is 32.

The oldest son of Columbia’s pilot is now a  Marine captain with three young children of his own.

The son of astronaut Dr Laurel Clark, Iain  Clark is a young man on the cusp of college with a master’s rating in scuba  diving and three parachute jumps in his new log book.

His mother loved scuba and skydiving. So did  her flight  surgeon husband and Iain’s dad, Dr Jonathan Clark, who since the  accident, has been a crusader for keeping space crews safe.

Neurologist Dr Clark told the Associated  Press: ‘It’s tough losing a mom, that’s for sure. I think Iain was the most  affected.

‘My goal was to keep him alive. That was the  plan. It was kind of dicey for a while. There was a lot of darkness – for him  and me.’

Clark’s wife and the six other  astronauts  were killed in the final minutes of their 16-day scientific  research mission  aboard Columbia.

Clark, now 59, said he turned to alcohol in  the aftermath of Columbia. If it wasn’t for his son, he doubts he would have  gotten through it.

‘He’s the greatest kid ever,’ Clark said in a  phone interview from Houston. ‘He cares about people. He’s kind of starting to  get his confidence, but he’s not at all cocky.’

Iain is set to graduate this spring from a  boarding school in Arizona; he wants to study marine biology at a university in  Florida.

‘His life is like about as idyllic as you  could imagine, considering all … he’s been through,’ said Clark,  who is still  protective of Iain’s privacy. He would not disclose where  Iain attends school  but he did provide a few snapshots.

Mother and son were extremely  close.

After the accident, Iain insisted to his  father: ‘I want to invent a time  machine.’ If he could go back in time, the  child reasoned, he could warn his mother about the fate awaiting her.

‘He asked me why she didn’t bail out, that  kind of stuff, because he knew she had been a parachutist,’ Clark  recalled.

Father and son were among the astronauts’  families waiting at the Kennedy runway for Columbia that early Saturday morning.  Once it was clear there had been trouble, the families were hustled to crew  quarters, where they got the grim news.

Rona Ramon’s sharpest memory about that  fateful day is how ‘the joy and the longing’ to see her husband return from  space turned so quickly into anguish.

‘I just looked up at the sky and said, ”God,  bring him back to me.”’

Her husband, already a heroic military pilot,  became Israel’s first spaceman on the flight.

Clark hastily came up with a plan: Disappear  with his son as soon as they got back home to Houston. Grab the dog, the car and  as much money as possible. Then, ‘drop off the grid’.

But that didn’t happen. A few years went by  before father and son finally made their escape. Clark bought a house in  Arizona, keeping a small apartment in Houston as he went from working for NASA  at Johnson Space Center, to a teaching job at Baylor College of Medicine and an  adviser’s position at the National Space Biomedical Research  Institute.

Clark won’t divulge his exact whereabouts,  even now. He moves every few years. He has a girlfriend, but doesn’t see himself  remarrying.

‘I don’t ever want to go through losing a  wife again,’ he explained.

Clark remains bitter over the ‘really bad  people’ who came after him in Houston for money and favors, spurred by NASA’s  $27million settlement in 2007 with the Columbia families.

‘There was a lot of grief. There was a lot of  sorrow. There was a lot of destructive behavior. There were a lot of people  taking advantage of you,’ he said.

But Clark holds no grudges against NASA,  neither the agency as a whole nor the managers who, during the flight, dismissed  concerns from low-level employees about the severity of damage to Columbia’s  left wing. It was gouged by a piece of insulating foam that peeled off the fuel  tank at lift-off.

Clark learned of the foam strike during the  mission, while working a shift in Mission Control. Like so many others, Clark  wishes he’d done something.

But no one knew during the flight how badly  Columbia was damaged. And no effort was made to find out while there still was  time to consider what would have been a risky rescue attempt by another  shuttle.

Surviving the actual breakup, during  re-entry, was deemed impossible by all involved. At 210,000 feet going Mach 15,  it was ‘much, much worse than anything we had ever planned for,’ Hale wrote in  his blog earlier this month.

For four years after the Columbia accident,  Mr Clark assisted a NASA team that looked into how the astronauts died and how  they might have survived.

For Clark, it was about ‘trying to find  something good out of something bad. I kind of threw my heart and soul’ into  crew survival issues and, most recently, the faster-than-the-speed-of sound,  stratospheric jump by Felix Baumgartner. Clark was the medical director for the  Red Bull-sponsored feat last fall in New Mexico.

The tragic end to NASA’s 113th shuttle flight  prompted President George W. Bush to take action. He announced in 2004 that the  three shuttles left would stop flying in 2010 once they finished delivering  pieces of the International Space Station. The shuttles resumed flying with new  safety measures in place and eked out an extra year, ending on No. 135 in  2011.

The only way out of the Columbia darkness,  for Clark, has been to move forward.

‘It doesn’t mean I don’t miss Laurel or have  remorse about what happened,’ he said. ‘But you cannot be living in this kind of  grief-stricken mode. … Laurel would kick my ass if that happened to  me.’

The shuttle commander’s widow, Evelyn Husband  Thompson, finally feels free to start giving back, now that her youngest,  Matthew, is 17.

She wanted to focus first on her two children  and then on her marriage five years ago to Bill Thompson, a widower she met  through church. Bill provided the crucial male role model that Matthew so  desperately needed following the accident, she said.

Now, his mother said, ‘he enjoys his private  life’.

‘It was tough. Overnight, my children were  thrust into this international stage,’ Thompson said. Having the last name  ‘Husband’ drew grief-stricken stares for the longest time in Houston, home to  Johnson Space Center.

‘With the mercy of time, people really don’t  recognize it as much as they once did,’ she said.

Her new passions, each purposefully  low-profile: her neighborhood YMCA where Husband once coached children, a  ministry for widows at her church, and a Christian organization that helps  fatherless boys.

‘These three areas right now just fit me to a  T, and I know that they would really please Rick,’ Thompson said this  week.

‘We just still miss Rick so much,’ she said.  ‘The sweet part of it is that we have made it 10 years, that God has been  faithful in our lives, and we have been able to find joy in the midst of a lot  of sorrow.’

Daughter Laura, 22, is working on a master’s  degree in theology. Matthew is a high school sophomore.

The entire family, as well as close friends,  will gather at Kennedy for Friday’s memorial service, which also will honor the  seven astronauts who perished during the January 28, 1986, lift-off of  Challenger and the three killed on the launch pad in the January 27, 1967,  Apollo 1 fire.

Thompson is a featured speaker. Anderson’s  widow, Sandra, also plans to attend.

The two women, who attended the same church  with their late husbands, remain close. The rest of the Columbia families have  drifted apart, Thompson noted, but they all have a common goal.

‘Try to find a way to have beauty come out of  the ashes,’ she said. ‘You just want to feel like you’re making a  difference.’

She is one of two Columbia spouses who have  written memoirs about their loved ones. Kalpana Chawla’s husband, Jean-Pierre  Harrison, who also has remarried, published a biography titled The Edge of Time  in 2011.

Clark is in Israel this week, taking part in  an annual space conference held in honor of Ramon. Of all the Columbia families,  he feels closest to Rona Ramon.

She became a grief counselor after her second  family tragedy. The Ramons’ oldest of four children, Asaf, died at 21 when his  jet crashed in an Israeli training accident in 2009. One surviving son is a  combat soldier in Israel; another is studying music in college. Her daughter is  15.

One of McCool’s three sons is also in the  military, a captain in the Marines.

Reminders of Columbia’s dead are everywhere -  including up in the sky.

Everything from asteroids, lunar craters and  Martian hills, to schools, parks, streets and even an airport (Rick Husband  Amarillo International Airport) bear the Columbia astronauts’ names.

Two years ago, a museum opened in Hemphill,  Texas, where much of the Columbia wreckage rained down, dedicated to  ‘remembering Columbia’.

About 84,000 pounds of that wreckage – representing 40 percent of NASA’s oldest space shuttle – are stored at Kennedy  and loaned for engineering research.

The tragedy has made Clark and his son more  spiritual.

‘He’s a really good kid and I wonder – you  always wonder – would he have been this way if he hadn’t lost somebody so dear  in his life.

‘Maybe this was Laurel’s gift to  him.’

Source: The Daily Mail


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