Sunday, February 09, 2003

This was written around 11 pm on Saturday Feb. 1, 2003, about 15 hours after the shuttle Columbia was lost in the skies over Texas. I sent it out to family and friends as an email. I work at NASA/JSC where I train astronauts and flight controllers on space shuttle systems.

Well this day has pretty much sucked.

A co-worker woke me up at 8:45 this morning and told me "we lost the shuttle this morning". I asked what he meant by that - in my sleepy stupor I couldn't figure it out. How can you lose a shuttle? "The shuttle broke apart on entry today over Texas and everyone's dead." That was the wakeup call from hell.

I turned on the news and sat in stunned horror watching CNN, seeing the familiar shuttle entry contrail break up into a differently familiar set of parallel trajectories - sadly familiar, as that's what the Russian space station Mir looked like in 2001 as it reentered the atmosphere and broke apart. They kept showing the video over and over. I finally figured out that there was no explosion because I didn't see a cloud, it looked more like the shuttle broke apart. And as the debris started coming down over northeast Texas, and more video clips came in, that was pretty much confirmed.

I made a few phone calls to friends and co-workers, passing along the news. I woke up a couple, others were already watching and crying. Then I just sat and watched. In 1986 when the Challenger accident hit, I was still in college, so I wasn't a part of the NASA community yet. Now, I've been here almost 15 years. In a way it was like 9/11 all over again, but this time it was an accident rather than deliberate. But where 9/11 hit home for me only abstractly - they attacked my country, I used to live in the New York area, I had been to the World Trade Center - this was personal. I knew the crew and had trained them over the years. The four rookies (Dave Brown, Laurel Clark, Willie McCool, and Ilan Ramon) came to Houston as civilians and pilots, part of my job was to take them through "astronaut boot camp" and train them to be astronauts. When they graduated, they were eligible to be assigned to a flight. Around the time Dave, Willie, and Laurel were becoming full-fledged astronauts, I was training Kalpana "KC" Chawla on her first flight as a member of her training team. Over the years I've worked with Rick Husband and Mike Anderson, too, as well as all the others in various simulation sessions. So these weren't just abstract, anonymous astronauts flying the shuttle, they were friends and co-workers. Even that big old bird of a shuttle was more familiar to us than some of our automobiles.

By noon when the press conferences started, the hard news started to trickle in. And the news they gave was familiar to me in that the systems that initially indicated failure were systems that I train the flight controllers (though I didn't work with the STS-107 controllers). Readings going off-scale low as if the wires were cut, temperatures rising - that sounded very ominous, like something we’d see in a sim. But this wasn’t supposed to happen on a real flight. Early reports indicated some sort of problem on the left side, which had been hit with debris on liftoff; the NASA engineers evaluated it and said it shouldn't be a problem for entry. (Of course, even if they did say they were worried, there was absolutely nothing that could have been done on orbit to fix anything - they couldn't do a space walk and patch the tiles since there is no way to get under the shuttle and no tile repair kit.)

In the afternoon I went to buy a few copies of the Houston Chronicle's Extra edition. They last put one out on 9/11, and I think the last time before that was for the Challenger in 1986.

While watching the local news in Houston, they showed information that memorial services were going to be held all over the Clear Lake area (home of NASA, and the part of town where I live). I attended the 7:30 service at Congregation Shaar Hashalom, the biggest synagogue in the area. It's also where Ilan Ramon and his family were members during their stay in the US – in fact, his son was scheduled to have his Bar Mitzvah in just a few months. The service was about a half hour long, and started with an invocation that this was a service for all the astronauts - Jewish, Catholic, Hindu, Baptist - not just the Jewish one. I started to lose it about halfway through when the rabbi read the poem "High Flight", which was written by a WWII pilot in 1941. That's the one that's associated with the Challenger crew too, that President Reagan famously quoted in his speech to the nation: "We shall never forget them nor the last time we saw them, as they prepared for their mission and waved good-bye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God." I was so choked up as the rabbi read the poem that it was tough to read anything out loud for the last 15 minutes or so, especially as we recited the Mourner's Kaddish prayer at the end. There were news crews from the four local networks in back or outside. I declined an interview with a Phoenix station because I didn't feel up to it right after the service.

Then I headed out to the front gate at the Johnson Space Center where I work, which is being turned into a makeshift memorial just like it was 17 years and 4 days ago. After only a half day since the accident, the site was literally blooming. Tons of flowers - small bouquets in wrappers, large arrangements in vases, giant wreaths. Big flags draped over the bushes, little flags on sticks, US, Israeli, and Indian flags. Lots of teddy bears. Homemade signs, some from kids, some with poems, some from the Houston Muslim, Indian and Pakistani communities. Printed emails. Candles with Hebrew writing on the jar, candles with the Virgin Mary, candles with Hindu themes. Mylar and rubber balloons of all shapes and colors. People hugging and crying, people praying. A bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace.” The Israeli ambassador to the US. Camera crews from Phoenix, Las Vegas, Orlando, Raleigh-Durham, El Paso, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles, and the classroom Channel One network. Reporters from Norway, Japan, and Germany (all based out of New York). Photographers from all over, professional and amateur. I was interviewed by New York Newsday, the Daily Texan, and a German TV crew. I spoke to a freelance photographer from Houston (who shoots for Time and People) who was shooting pictures of the debris recovery in north Texas on Saturday morning, the NASA gathering in Houston at night, and then tomorrow he's going back to watch the National Guard look for the remains of the crew up in Hemphill. And this is just the start of the shrine.

Going by the terrible precedent of "what did we do the last time we lost a shuttle and crew", I expect there to be a memorial ceremony for NASA workers sometime this week, with a speech by the President. [He spoke at a NASA ceremony in Houston on Tuesday.]

So it's going to be wait and see at work, we're not sure what's going to happen with anything. All future flights are on hold, but there's still a 3-man crew on the space station right now that's going to need to come down eventually. They've got a Russian Soyuz that they're trained on, but they have enough supplies to last through June. We'll see what happens before then. And we somehow have to try to get back to some semblance of normal behavior before too long, and go back to the business of exploring space like we were meant to do.

I took a few dozen pictures tonight at the JSC gate, I put them in an online photo album you can find at (and I expect there to be more photos in the next few days). Feel free to forward this to anyone you feel might be interested in reading it.