NASA has revealed that the Columbia crew wereÂ not told that the shuttle had been damaged andÂ they might not surviveÂ re-entry.
The seven astronauts who died will beÂ remembered at a public memorial service on the 10th anniversary of the disasterÂ 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,Â because ofÂ damage to its left wing.
Ten years ago, experts at NASA’s mission control faced the terrible decision over whether to let the astronautsÂ knowÂ that they may die on re-entry or face orbiting in space until the oxygen ranÂ out.
There was no way to repair anyÂ suspectedÂ damage – the crew were far from the International SpaceÂ Station and had noÂ robotic arm for repairs. It would have taken too long to sendÂ up anotherÂ shuttle to rescue them.
Wayne Hale, who went on to become spaceÂ shuttle program manager, has written on his blog aboutÂ the fateful day.
Mr Hale writes: ‘After one of theÂ MMTsÂ (Mission Management Team) when possible damage to the orbiter wasÂ discussed, heÂ (Flight Director Jon Harpold) gave me his opinion: ”YouÂ know, there is nothingÂ we can do about damage to the TPS (ThermalÂ Protection System).’
‘”If it has been damaged it’s probably betterÂ not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don’t youÂ think it wouldÂ be better for them to have a happy successful flight andÂ die unexpectedlyÂ during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that thereÂ was nothing to be done,Â until the air ran out?”‘
When Mission Control had it confirmed thatÂ the shuttle had broken up over Texas, Flight Director Leroy Cain ordered the room onÂ lock-down and all computer data saved for later investigation.
Mr Hale is the only person at NASA whoÂ publicly accepted blame, according to ABC.
As the memorial takes place on Friday, 12Â children will remember the parents they lost. A decade later, the youngest isÂ now 15 and the oldest is 32.
The oldest son of Columbia’s pilot is now aÂ Marine captain with three young children of his own.
The son of astronaut Dr Laurel Clark, IainÂ Clark is a young man on the cusp of college with a master’s rating in scubaÂ diving and three parachute jumps in his new log book.
His mother loved scuba and skydiving. So didÂ her flightÂ surgeon husband and Iain’s dad, Dr Jonathan Clark, who since theÂ accident, has been a crusader for keeping space crews safe.
Neurologist Dr Clark told the AssociatedÂ Press: ‘It’s tough losing a mom, that’s for sure. I think Iain was the mostÂ affected.
‘My goal was to keep him alive. That was theÂ plan. It was kind of dicey for a while. There was a lot of darkness – for himÂ and me.’
Clark’s wife and the six otherÂ astronautsÂ were killed in the final minutes of their 16-day scientificÂ research missionÂ aboard Columbia.
Clark, now 59, said he turned to alcohol inÂ the aftermath of Columbia. If it wasn’t for his son, he doubts he would haveÂ gotten through it.
‘He’s the greatest kid ever,’ Clark said in aÂ phone interview from Houston. ‘He cares about people. He’s kind of starting toÂ get his confidence, but he’s not at all cocky.’
Iain is set to graduate this spring from aÂ boarding school in Arizona; he wants to study marine biology at a university inÂ Florida.
‘His life is like about as idyllic as youÂ could imagine, considering all … he’s been through,’ said Clark,Â who is stillÂ protective of Iain’s privacy. He would not disclose whereÂ Iain attends schoolÂ but he did provide a few snapshots.
Mother and son were extremelyÂ close.
After the accident, Iain insisted to hisÂ father: ‘I want to invent a timeÂ machine.’ If he could go back in time, theÂ child reasoned, he could warn his mother about the fate awaiting her.
‘He asked me why she didn’t bail out, thatÂ kind of stuff, because he knew she had been a parachutist,’ ClarkÂ recalled.
Father and son were among the astronauts’Â families waiting at the Kennedy runway for Columbia that early Saturday morning.Â Once it was clear there had been trouble, the families were hustled to crewÂ quarters, where they got the grim news.
Rona Ramon’s sharpest memory about thatÂ fateful day is how ‘the joy and the longing’ to see her husband return fromÂ space turned so quickly into anguish.
‘I just looked up at the sky and said, ”God,Â bring him back to me.”’
Her husband, already a heroic military pilot,Â became Israel’s first spaceman on the flight.
Clark hastily came up with a plan: DisappearÂ with his son as soon as they got back home to Houston. Grab the dog, the car andÂ as much money as possible. Then, ‘drop off the grid’.
But that didn’t happen. A few years went byÂ before father and son finally made their escape. Clark bought a house inÂ Arizona, keeping a small apartment in Houston as he went from working for NASAÂ at Johnson Space Center, to a teaching job at Baylor College of Medicine and anÂ adviser’s position at the National Space Biomedical ResearchÂ Institute.
Clark won’t divulge his exact whereabouts,Â even now. He moves every few years. He has a girlfriend, but doesn’t see himselfÂ remarrying.
‘I don’t ever want to go through losing aÂ wife again,’ he explained.
Clark remains bitter over the ‘really badÂ people’ who came after him in Houston for money and favors, spurred by NASA’sÂ $27million settlement in 2007 with the Columbia families.
‘There was a lot of grief. There was a lot ofÂ sorrow. There was a lot of destructive behavior. There were a lot of peopleÂ taking advantage of you,’ he said.
But Clark holds no grudges against NASA,Â neither the agency as a whole nor the managers who, during the flight, dismissedÂ concerns from low-level employees about the severity of damage to Columbia’sÂ left wing. It was gouged by a piece of insulating foam that peeled off the fuelÂ tank at lift-off.
Clark learned of the foam strike during theÂ mission, while working a shift in Mission Control. Like so many others, ClarkÂ wishes he’d done something.
But no one knew during the flight how badlyÂ Columbia was damaged. And no effort was made to find out while there still wasÂ time to consider what would have been a risky rescue attempt by anotherÂ shuttle.
Surviving the actual breakup, duringÂ re-entry, was deemed impossible by all involved. At 210,000 feet going Mach 15,Â it was ‘much, much worse than anything we had ever planned for,’ Hale wrote inÂ his blog earlier this month.
For four years after the Columbia accident,Â Mr Clark assisted a NASA team that looked into how the astronauts died and howÂ they might have survived.
For Clark, it was about ‘trying to findÂ something good out of something bad. I kind of threw my heart and soul’ intoÂ crew survival issues and, most recently, the faster-than-the-speed-of sound,Â stratospheric jump by Felix Baumgartner. Clark was the medical director for theÂ Red Bull-sponsored feat last fall in New Mexico.
The tragic end to NASA’s 113th shuttle flightÂ prompted President George W. Bush to take action. He announced in 2004 that theÂ three shuttles left would stop flying in 2010 once they finished deliveringÂ pieces of the International Space Station. The shuttles resumed flying with newÂ safety measures in place and eked out an extra year, ending on No. 135 inÂ 2011.
The only way out of the Columbia darkness,Â for Clark, has been to move forward.
‘It doesn’t mean I don’t miss Laurel or haveÂ remorse about what happened,’ he said. ‘But you cannot be living in this kind ofÂ grief-stricken mode. … Laurel would kick my ass if that happened toÂ me.’
The shuttle commander’s widow, Evelyn HusbandÂ Thompson, finally feels free to start giving back, now that her youngest,Â Matthew, is 17.
She wanted to focus first on her two childrenÂ and then on her marriage five years ago to Bill Thompson, a widower she metÂ through church. Bill provided the crucial male role model that Matthew soÂ desperately needed following the accident, she said.
Now, his mother said, ‘he enjoys his privateÂ life’.
‘It was tough. Overnight, my children wereÂ thrust into this international stage,’ Thompson said. Having the last nameÂ ‘Husband’ drew grief-stricken stares for the longest time in Houston, home toÂ Johnson Space Center.
‘With the mercy of time, people really don’tÂ recognize it as much as they once did,’ she said.
Her new passions, each purposefullyÂ low-profile: her neighborhood YMCA where Husband once coached children, aÂ ministry for widows at her church, and a Christian organization that helpsÂ fatherless boys.
‘These three areas right now just fit me to aÂ T, and I know that they would really please Rick,’ Thompson said thisÂ week.
‘We just still miss Rick so much,’ she said.Â ‘The sweet part of it is that we have made it 10 years, that God has beenÂ faithful in our lives, and we have been able to find joy in the midst of a lotÂ of sorrow.’
Daughter Laura, 22, is working on a master’sÂ degree in theology. Matthew is a high school sophomore.
The entire family, as well as close friends,Â will gather at Kennedy for Friday’s memorial service, which also will honor theÂ seven astronauts who perished during the January 28, 1986, lift-off ofÂ Challenger and the three killed on the launch pad in the January 27, 1967,Â Apollo 1 fire.
Thompson is a featured speaker. Anderson’sÂ widow, Sandra, also plans to attend.
The two women, who attended the same churchÂ with their late husbands, remain close. The rest of the Columbia families haveÂ drifted apart, Thompson noted, but they all have a common goal.
‘Try to find a way to have beauty come out ofÂ the ashes,’ she said. ‘You just want to feel like you’re making aÂ difference.’
She is one of two Columbia spouses who haveÂ written memoirs about their loved ones. Kalpana Chawla’s husband, Jean-PierreÂ Harrison, who also has remarried, published a biography titled The Edge of TimeÂ in 2011.
Clark is in Israel this week, taking part inÂ an annual space conference held in honor of Ramon. Of all the Columbia families,Â he feels closest to Rona Ramon.
She became a grief counselor after her secondÂ family tragedy. The Ramons’ oldest of four children, Asaf, died at 21 when hisÂ jet crashed in an Israeli training accident in 2009. One surviving son is aÂ combat soldier in Israel; another is studying music in college. Her daughter isÂ 15.
One of McCool’s three sons is also in theÂ military, a captain in the Marines.
Reminders of Columbia’s dead are everywhere -Â including up in the sky.
Everything from asteroids, lunar craters andÂ Martian hills, to schools, parks, streets and even an airport (Rick HusbandÂ Amarillo International Airport) bear the Columbia astronauts’ names.
Two years ago, a museum opened in Hemphill,Â Texas, where much of the Columbia wreckage rained down, dedicated toÂ ‘remembering Columbia’.
About 84,000 pounds of that wreckage – representing 40 percent of NASA’s oldest space shuttle – are stored at KennedyÂ and loaned for engineering research.
The tragedy has made Clark and his son moreÂ spiritual.
‘He’s a really good kid and I wonder – youÂ always wonder – would he have been this way if he hadn’t lost somebody so dearÂ in his life.
‘Maybe this was Laurel’s gift toÂ him.’
Source: The Daily Mail