Remember the Columbia 7

by
The crew of STS-107.  Source:  NASA

The crew of STS-107. Source: NASA

On the morning we lost Columbia seven years ago today, I was up early and in good spirits. The orbiter was headed home after two and a half week stint in space. I was was doing double duty at CNN that morning – as Columbia happened to be coming home during my shift as the co-anchor of the weekend morning program.

I was on top of the world because I had every reason to believe I would soon be orbiting above it. After years of negotiating with NASA (and the Russians), we were poised to announce that I would become the first journalist to fly on the space shuttle to the International Space Station.

My family and I were Houston bound. And I was about to embark on unprecedented journalistic adventure. It was the ultimate embed assignment.

It was a crystal clear cloudless morning across the entire continental US – and Columbia was going to streak across the country – coast to coast in a matter of minutes.

I mentioned this to the assignment and affiliate desks and told them to notify TV stations beneath the flight path to see if they might get some pictures of this man-made meteor. Fortunately, WFAA in Dallas thought it would be worth the effort to field a crew.

Columbia was due to land in the 9 a.m. hour. My anchor shift began at 7, so I got busy telling people the news of the day. Bush had delivered his State of the Union speech the previous Tuesday where he laid out his (specious) rationale for an invasion of Iraq. We were gearing up for war and our rundown that morning reflected that fact. I did an interview with Janeane Garofalo – who was railing against the impending war. Too bad we didn’t listen.

All the while, I was watching NASA’s TV feed out of the corner of my eye on a separate monitor. Co-anchor Heidi Collins and I were breaking in a new “living room” style set that morning, so I did not have the ability to listen in on radio communications as I could at the traditional anchor desk

So in order to stay abreast of the re-entry, I picked up my cell phone and dialed into the NASA’s dedicated line that carries mission audio and commentary. All seemed “nominal” (as they say in Mission Control) until Columbia was above them over Texas. Suddenly there was no communication with the orbiter. Not a good thing – but not on the face of it the proverbial Bad Day I always dreaded.

But of course it was. And when the time came for landing and there were no sonic booms – and  Columbia did not appear – there was no doubt it was a very Bad Day indeed. A space shuttle orbiter is nothing more than a sophisticated glider as it comes home. The landing time is about as accurate as an atomic clock. No holding patterns  or go-arounds in this racket. So when a shuttle does not arrive on time, there really is not a benign (much less survivable) alternative outcome.

I knew this instantly, and it simply took my breath away. I told our audience only that there was a problem with the shuttle and we were watching it ever so closely. We tossed to a break and I was told to leave the living room set – and make my way to the place we called the “Big Board” which was rigged with a giant plasma screen and and telestrator. It was a standing set – and I would be there for the next 16 hours leading viewers through a national tragedy.

While I was making that move, I started heaving with emotion. The loss was overwhelming. I thought of my lost friends on the shuttle, the terror that they must be feeling in mission control and the horror and sadness that must have been gripping the space program. It is journalistically impolitic to say this, but after all those years, I was a part of the family.

And indeed, I was just about to take a step even further into the fold. And I knew my dream was over as well. But I realized this was no time for emotion. I had the job ahead that I had been in training for my entire career. I consciously told myself to put the emotion on the shelf. That night, when I finally got off the air – got in the air – and found myself in a Houston hotel, I cried myself to sleep. It was a devastating loss on so many levels.

Today I got up early as well. But no high spirits this morning. My thoughts are with the families of those who were lost on Columbia – especially the children who no doubt have fading memories of their fathers or mother. I still grieve for them and for my NASA family.

And as it happens on this day, NASA will tell us what is ahead for the US space program. You can watch more about this on our most recent edition of our webcast “This Week In Space.” The shuttle program will not get a reprieve from the President. The end game set in motion by Bush one year after the loss of Columbia will march on. The shuttle days are numbered. Only 5 missions remain and it will likely all be over this time next year.

NASA will get more money – good news in a tough fiscal environment. But not nearly enough to fund the audacious – yet nostalgic – Moon program Bush envisioned. So today, we will hear it is all being scrapped. NASA will spend the money that is freed up to bolster efforts to study our own planet and its climate, for aeronautics and to keep the International Space Station in business until at least 2020.

There will be money spent to seed a more robust private, commercial space industry and to devise new propulsion systems that will make a trip to Mars faster – and thus more plausible. The idea of developing a plasma propulsion system to take humans exploring deeper into the solar system is enough to get most space cadets pretty jazzed. So it is good news that there will be more money spent here. Bring it on.

That there will be no trips back to the Moon does not bother me that much. JFK famously said “We choose to go to the Moon because it is hard…” Well, frankly, for us, the Moon is not so hard. We know how to do it. I have never heard a really compelling reason to return (including the prospect of mining Helium-3). What is hard is devising a piloted trip to Mars, one of its moons or an asteroid. No one has done that. And that’s what leaders are supposed to do.

But today we will hear no real specifics on where we are headed or how we are going to get there. It makes me nervous. Are we on the brink of something exciting in space? Or is this the end of the beginning? If history is our guide, I fear the answer is “yes” to the latter.

In hindsight, it is safe to say we have missed many opportunities make a real plan for what should happen in the post-shuttle years. And yet politics always got in the way. If only we had the courage and conviction to dream big and then execute the plan…

Space cannot be planned in two or four-year cycles. Let’s hope this time, we take the long view – aim for the stars – and follow through.

We owe the crew of Columbia nothing less than that.

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13 Responses to “Remember the Columbia 7”

  1. Heather Smith Says:

    Isn’t it ironic that on the day of this anniversary that the budget would be slashed?

  2. epcostello Says:

    Is it just bad coincidence that three of NASA’s most critical disasters (not just fatal, but demonstrating failures in process) have happened in mid-late January/early February?

    Am hoping to catch next weekend’s launch live.

  3. craig Says:

    This incident, while tragic, did lead to the only science joke that I have ever found remotely funny.

    What does NASA stand for? Need Another Seven Astronauts.

  4. 4timking Says:

    I have this sick feeling that this is just slashing the budget and worrying about the future later. Every President from Nixon onward has made at least one decision that put NASA further and further behind the eight ball. By not laying out any clear future or deadlines it appears that Obama has fallen into the same trap.

    I’d like to sit here and think that SpaceX and others are going to jump into the fray, take us to the next step in exploration and that I’ll live to see American footprints on another world. But I am not counting on that tonight.

    • Ron Atkins Says:

      I am.

    • Miles O'Brien Says:

      The truth is JFK didn’t even care about space – except to serve political goals. That is why it is important that voters let their leaders know this is important. Truth is, space does not have a very effective constituency – except in the pockets where a lot of livelihoods rise or fall depending on whether the rockets do the same.

  5. Taylor Wright Says:

    This was a great entry Miles. I’m new to you and your work, but Space this Week has quickly become something I look forward to watching and a comprehensive and educating insight into a lot of aspects of the space program. Your thoughts above are touching and sad and help connect me to an incident that I didn’t know much about before. Hopefully the work of people like you can help more people like me become informed and involved in our country’s (and world’s) dialog about space travel.

  6. Facebook User Says:

    MIles – I was a PAO at MSFC for 5 years – left the agency after STS-114 for many reasons. One being that I knew we were one mistake away from what Obama announced yesterday. My thoughts are with my friends and colleagues that are still working with the agency.

    However – I hope that everyone who has ties to the agency takes a minute to read what you have said. I couldn’t have said it better. Maybe, just maybe we will all benefit from a long term vision if we can ever break the political cycle that affects the agency. I’ve share your post with everyone that I know that has a vested interest in the agency and its overall mission. Keep up the good work. As a former shuttle hugger and press site flunky – I agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts.

  7. Kathy Karsten Tipton Says:

    I remember that day vividly. The look on your face said it all, even before the news was confirmed. It will be hard to let go of the shuttle program–I was 9 when Columbia first launched and a total space geek–but like you, I do hope we continue to make those big plans. There is so much out there waiting to be discovered.

    Looking forward to the Detroit piece on PBS. It’s always a pleasure to see & hear your reporting!

  8. jomar Says:

    Miles. Is there any chance at the very least funding get restored for Orion. I can almost understand canceling the moon program, that it is wrong mission at the wrong time. I can even see canceling Ares since other options such as Directs Jupiter shuttle derived rocket or the Delta 4 heavy are available. But I see no upside in canceling Orion. Canceling Orion leaves really only SpaceX and their Dragon spacecraft as the only option. SpaceX has not even developed an escape system yet for their paper spacecraft. Not to mention design setbacks that all spacecraft suffer when they are developed. I fear putting all our eggs in the commercial basket will lead to maybe a 10 year gap in US manned spaceflight.

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