Review: Bringing Columbia Home
It was one of NASA’s most tragic moments and Bringing Columbia Home, a new book drafted by noted author Jonathan Ward and the agency’s last Space Shuttle Launch Director, Michael Leinbach provide a review of STS-107, Shuttle Columbia’s final flight. An interview with the authors reminds us of just what was lost – and why it is important to remember the accident which placed NASA on the trajectory the agency is currently on.
I’ve had the opportunity to interview both Leinbach and Ward before. I spoke with Leinbach during the lead up to the final mission of the Shuttle Program, STS-135. I found him to be humble and understated, just the type of personality that one needs when handling such a high-pressure job.
There have been a few books published about the loss of Columbia, notably Comm Check, 16 Minutes From Home and a few others. Why had they decided to write about the subject?
“This all began with Mike and I when we were at the funeral for Norm Carlson who was one of the Apollo launch conductors – he was one of the driving forces behind my Apollo book a couple years ago and Norm had always said that Mike was the best hire that he had ever made. Anyway, I saw Mike at Norm’s memorial service, recognizing him from photographs and introduced myself,” Ward told SpaceFlight Insider. “It actually was Mike’s idea for the book, he had said that he had wanted to write one about Columbia and that immediately got my attention because I always thought that it was a shame that nobody seemed to remember Columbia the way they do Challenger.”
“Three minutes and fifteen seconds before landing, when we didn’t hear the double sonic booms – we knew that Columbia was lost. I had gone back up to the control room as I always did for landing day and watched the deorbit burn from my console.”
It was at this point that what has to have been one of the most trying points of Leinbach’s life began.
After hearing Mission Control call Columbia for a comm check again and again, Leinbach looked at Wayne Hale, the agency’s former ascent and reentry director. Hale said simply, “Beacons.” For those who didn’t follow the Shuttle Program you don’t want to hear the word contingency and you certainly don’t want to hear folks of Hale’s and Leinbach’s experience discussing the beacons on the crew’s launch and reentry suits – as it meant they had been forced to abandon the shuttle.
In short, from the very start, Bringing Columbia Home grabs you by the collar and never lets go. Each heart-rending moment is brought home with brutal honesty.
In Bringing Columbia Home, the Mission Management Team’s decision to request additional images from the U.S. intelligence community is covered. Led by Linda Ham, the mentality of, “Prove that it’s not safe to bring the crew home” – is shown to be the abject failure that it was.
Given that a piece of foam had struck the orbiter on ascent and that the video of the event had caused a shock from those who saw it and that it was referred to as a “big hit” – memories of the damage incurred on STS-27 and STS-112 should have caused engineers to conduct a more formal review of just how bad the damage was.
Moreover, the fact that it appears an item had floated away from Columbia during one of the orbiter’s thruster burns – should have underscored that. However, not enough attention, or concern, was paid to the warning signs that were cropping up. Also, somewhat similar to the lack of communications between federal agencies in the lead up to the terror attacks of 9/11 – pieces of information that one organization had – were not shared with others – or were not requested.
Bringing Columbia Home is filled with memories and moments of those dark days that have been largely forgotten or might not have been mentioned before.
In the post 9/11 world, with the nation ever-worried about the next attack conducted by Islamist extremists, there is one event highlighted in the book that happened on launch day that many readers might be largely unaware of. In fact, there are an array of little-known facts about this book that should place it firmly at the top of any space enthusiasts “must read” column.
There is also the “other” losses that were incurred as part of STS-107 that Bringing Columbia Home helps to remind us of. Two members of the air search crew, Jules “Buzz” Mier and Charles Krenek were killed and three other members injured when their Bell 407 helicopter crashed – another facet of loss to the STS-107 tragedy that is often forgotten today.
“This changes everything…”
Those were the words spoken by the NASA Administrator at the time of the Columbia accident, Sean O’Keefe. They simply could not have been more prophetic. Fourteen years after the loss of Columbia and her crew, NASA is a shadow of its former self, having lacked the ability to send crews to orbit for six years, dependent on Russian Soyuz rockets and spacecraft to send U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station that the Space Agency’s fleet of orbiters built.
While the U.S. President at the time of the loss of Columbia, George W. Bush made bold promises to refocus NASA’s crewed exploration efforts to the Moon, to Mars and beyond – those words failed to garner the agency the funds that it needed to accomplish the objectives the ‘Vision for Space Exploration’ laid out before them. This began a period, a divide, between when NASA could – and could not launch astronauts on its own.
The two terms served by President Obama – only saw that chasm extended with NASA forced to buy an ever-increasing amount of flights from the Russians and the 44th President directing the agency to develop technologies and an ideology of “We’ve been there…” when it came to the Moon. His efforts resulted in the Asteroid Redirect Mission which would have seen either an asteroid or the boulder of an asteroid towed into lunar orbit – which astronauts would visit instead of the Moon. It, like Bush’s Constellation Program, was cancelled.
With the election of President Donald Trump, and the announcement of the National Space Council – it was announced that NASA would, yet again, be redirected to the Moon. However, as each successive administration changes the agency’s direction – it is unclear when NASA will regain what the U.S. lost as the last orbiter to fly to space, Atlantis, concluded the Shuttle Program’s final mission, STS-135 in July of 2011.
While the agency hopes that commercial companies such as Boeing and SpaceX will allow them to resume flights to the International Space Station within the next couple of years – it is unclear when these flights will actually take place. Meanwhile the first crewed flight of the Space Agency’s massive new Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, Exploration Mission 2, is currently slated to take place in April of 2023 – twelve years after the last crewed U.S. mission left the pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
“We’ve kinda ended up in a period where we are treading water as we wait for the Commercial Crew (Program) thing takes off now,” Ward told SpaceFlight Insider. “That the shuttle could not have gone on flying forever was kind of the message that I got from talking to people.”
Leinbach noted that there wee plans in place to keep the shuttles flying until at least 2020 – but it was not to be. The loss of Space Shuttle Challenger on mission STS-51L had erased the dangerous notion that riding to orbit atop chemically-fueled rockets could or would ever be “routine.” A fact set in stone by the loss of Columbia.
SpaceFlight Insider does not post negative reviews, although there have been books / movies that warranted them. We feel it’s unkind to reward someone who takes the time to send you their work with negativity – therefore we either post a positive review or none at all.
So with that out of the way – how glowing is our praise of this book? It simply cannot be higher. This book needs to be required reading in high schools and colleges across the United States. There is far too much ignorance on this subject and it is critical that the general public grasp just how difficult the business of space flight is – and the high cost incurred when that lesson is forgotten.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.