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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.
DESHAILES, GUADELOUPE – I doubt there are many people who would look forward to leaving this little piece of paradise. I am sitting on the deck of a sailboat anchored in the harbor of this quaint fishing village.
I just finished a hot croissant delivered by an enterprising young man plying the water on an inflatable dinghy (deftly prying Euros from my wallet with inflated prices – C’est la Vie!). The sun is shining, the breeze is steady and the temperature is 80°F.
What could be wrong with this picture? Nothing except what dutifully drops into my Kindle every morning via Whispernet (as opposed to the old Eastern Whisperjets…)
The absurd, inane, horse-out-of-the-barn response to the Christmas Day “Fruit of the Boom” Bomber-wannabe gives me even more reason to dread the trip back home.
My Kindle tells me my family and I will face long lines, lots of questions, pat down searches and an hour of lockdown time in our seats before landing. It is as if my ruler-brandishing first-grade teacher Sister Grace took over Delta Air Lines. “Books away – feet on the floor – hands on your desk – eyes straight ahead…”
It is brilliant thinking like the new seat arrest rule that should tell you a lot about our ill-conceived approach to thwarting terrorists who continue to find plane loads full of innocent Americans to be tempting targets. I don’t suppose future terrorists might try to light some portion of their clothing 61 minutes before landing do you?
What about the baby who needs a bottle or a passy on descent and is crying his lungs out? God help him, his mother and the rest of us…
We put the jerk in knee-jerk with the way we respond to threats.
Our Homeland Security Czarina Janet Napolitano tried to spin the whole thing into a triumph of our security apparatus. At least she didn’t get a “Nappy, you’re doin’ a heckuva a job!” from our Commander-in-Chief, but the Sunday talk show gaffe was one of those moments when the political Cuisinart jams on a big chunk of reality (it does, indeed, bite).
And of course we all know the Brief Bomber laid bare what I have suspected for a long time: that our no nail-clipper, no-hair gel, shoes-off, laptop-out security apparatus is little more than a Potemkin Village. It gives the appearance that we are doing something real – when all we are really doing is providing travelers a false sense of security – and often a real sense of frustration.
Let’s see: a young man embraces radical Islam and starts spewing some twisted, violent vitriol. His respected, influential father tells the CIA that he fears trouble and the US should revoke his son’s visa. The young man arrives at an an airport without any luggage and buys a one-way ticket to Detroit – with cash. And no one even arches an eyebrow? Come on people…you don’t have to be a security expert to know something was not right with that deal.
There was a time after 9/11 when I would routinely get selected for additional screening whenever I purchased a one-way ticket (which was fairly often given the vicissitudes of the TV News business). And I was using a corporate Amex card – flying an airline where I had logged a million miles. I used to grumble about it (silently, of course) because I assumed no future terrorist would be so stupid (or cheap) to buy only a one way ticket.
But, as I mentioned, I am no expert.
Here is what any moron can see as plain as day: our $40 billion dollar post-9/11 airline security net is a total joke – a White Elephant of epic (and potentially tragic) proportions.
The truth is the only aspect of our post 9/11 defense that has turned out to be 100% effective are the passengers themselves. Without really thinking about it we have become an airborne militia – all watching and ready to kick al Qaeda butt at the drop of… a pair of trousers. It began in Shanksville – it effectively thwarted the shoe-bomber – and now Captain Underpants.
Which brings me to my big worry: ever since Richard Reid tried to light up his sneakers, we have all had to remove our shoes before boarding. The logical conclusion in this illogical system: government sanctioned panty raids.
Your mother always told you to wear clean underwear.
Or maybe we should just get it over with and fly like the fat, old French guys I see strolling around this little cute Caribbean town: in Speedos and plastic sandals.
The pilots simply never saw each other.
Steven Altman had just departed Teterboro Airport in his single-engine airplane – his brother and nephew aboard. They were heading to the Hudson River flight corridor – and eventually out the mouth of New York Harbor toward the Jersey shore. As he reached the river, he turned his low-wing plane steeply to the right to begin hugging the west bank of the Hudson – the proper place for southbound traffic.
At precisely that moment, Jeremy Clarke took off from the 30th Street Heliport in a Eurocopter carrying five tourists from Italy. As he gained altitude, he flew across the river, and turned to the left to fly down to the Statue of Liberty.
As they converged, Altman would have been in the left front seat of his plane looking to his right – while Clarke was in the right front seat of the chopper – looking left.
The low wing on Altman’s airplane would have completely obscured the chopper. In a climbing left turn, Clarke’s view of the airplane would have been obscured by the rotors above him.
There is a long history of so called “low-wing/high-wing” mid air collisions. Most of the time, they happen near smaller airports that do not have a control tower.
In this case it happened a very busy slice of the sky – the virtual tunnel for airplane traffic over the Hudson River.
Those of us who fly through this airspace are responsible for seeing and avoiding each other. There are no air traffic controllers serving as traffic cops here.
And before you get yourself all spun up about this (I am talkin’ to you Sen. Schumer!), before this tragic crash there has never been a mid air collision like this in New York City.
Over the years, many thousands of airplane and helicopters have successfully and safely plied their way through this corridor of airspace wherein the responsibility for collision avoidance rests entirely in the cockpit.
And the real truth is it makes flying in the New York City airspace safer – because all the aircraft who fly in this zone are not taxing already maxed out air traffic controllers.
If tour helicopters had to check in with ATC every time they alighted with a load of tourists, the system would bog down in a hurry.
It is NOT the Wild West up there – as one congressional staffer suggests. Not by a long shot. There are rules that pilots follow and the safety record speaks for itself.
It is a busy place with a lot of traffic and you have to pay attention all the time. But that’s New York for you. When two cars collide in Midtown Manhattan, do we instantly insist the traffic laws be changed?
The odds of this accident happening were long indeed. If either pilot had taken off five or ten seconds later (or earlier) it would not have happened.
It is a terrible tragedy and we all mourn the needless loss of life. But it was, statistically, a black swan – and not the result of some endemic, systemic flaw. Let’s resist the temptation to try and fix a system that is not broken. More often than not, the unintended consequences simply make matters worse.
Flying low and slow over the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey to “see the Lady” is a real eyeful and a ton of fun – but it is neither for the faint of heart nor the foolhardy aviators.
There is nothing inherently unsafe about it – but it does require a pilot’s full attention.
There are a few ways to do this. One way involves calling air traffic controllers who manage traffic in the New York City region. You tell them where you are – and what you would like to do. If they are not too busy, they will clear you in to the so-called “Class B” airspace – usually at an altitude of about 2,500 – 3,000 feet. – or about twice as high as the Empire State Building.
This is probably the safest way to fly the river, but it is not as fun as going lower through the Visual Flight Rules (VFR) corridor. You can fly into that corridor without checking in with controllers manning “New York Approach” so long as you remain below 1,100 feet, stay near the river’s edges and fly no faster than 140 knots (160 mph) The rules are fairly straightforward, but it is extremely important that pilots become familiar with them in advance – and stick to the procedures. (more…)