Think back to 10 years ago. February 1st 2003, around 9am (EST) in the morning. Some of you will have this date burned into your memory, but many will not. Do you remember where you were, when you first heard?
I do, and won’t ever forget.
I woke up late that morning. I’d meant to watch the landing live, but getting up early isn’t exactly my favorite thing to do. To be honest, watching a routine touchdown isn’t terribly exciting. Intellectually interesting — oh my yes — but not as primally exciting as the thrill and danger of a launch. Sometimes the cable TV networks would even break away from the usual news drivel to show the first minute or two… The countdown and ignition still caught the public’s attention. The rest of the mission and landing? Not so much.
I loved every minute minute of it.
NASA’s a pretty easy thing for a geek like me to fall in love with (see #5). It wasn’t always easy to keep up with, though. The online streams often got swamped during a Shuttle mission (only a lucky few got NasaTV on their local cable station). If you knew about them, the sci.space.shuttle and sci.space.history groups on Usenet were great for technical tidbits, and even had an early cryptic hint that there might be something wrong with STS-107.
That morning it became tragically obvious as to just how wrong things were.
I slept through Columbia and her seven crew burning up on reentry. I think I’m glad I missed the immediate confusion over what was happening. But instead I got it all in one lump, when I finally started my day by reading the news on Fark.com. It took a moment to sink in — Fark was a unique blend of news and humor, but the “News Flash!” headline I saw was unusually direct and blunt:
“Space shuttle Columbia explodes on re-entry. All on board killed”
Oh… no. No.
Things moved quickly from there. The rough outline of what likely happened was publicly known within days (instead of weeks, as NASA was significantly more open than they were in the Challenger era). An accident investigation board was formed, and held regular sessions to update the public on their progress. A report was generated, leading to a NASA Shuttle program that was reformed but also put on a path to shutdown.
If you’re interested in a technical, engineering and systems view of what happened, there is no better resource than the final report from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. It’s long but also highly readable. A large one-part PDF of volume 1 is available here.
Another retrospective on the Columbia accident can be found on former flight-director Wayne Hale’s blog. I watched it unfold on the Internet, but he was there.
The 1941 poem High Flight is a surprisingly prescient tribute:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.