Scott Hubbard remembers exactly where he was on the day of one of the deadliest tragedies in space travel history.
Before he got out of bed on the morning of February 1, 2003, a radio station reported that NASA’s space shuttle Columbia was “overdue” to return to Earth.
“I had a feeling in my stomach that something was wrong,” he recalls.
The spacecraft, which had launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida just over two weeks earlier, with seven astronauts on board, was scheduled to land that morning.
But the landing never came.
Columbia, which made its maiden voyage back in April 1981, disintegrated over Texas 16 minutes before it landed in Florida as planned, killing the entire crew. They are Commander Rick Husband; pilot William McCool; evangelical experts Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark, David Brown and Kalpana Chawla; and payload specialist Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first cosmonaut.
It marked the beginning of the end of the US space shuttle program, which suffered the loss of seven astronauts in the Challenger disaster of 1986.
For Hubbard, a veteran of the US space agency who served as the agency’s first Mars program director, Columbia changed his view on rocket launches forever.
“When that low-frequency rumbling, that pressure wave hits you, you have a sense of awe at the power being used to lift out of the Earth’s gravity wells. But after having the experience at Columbia, when I see a manned launch, there’s an extra sense of anxiety: ‘Have I done everything I can to make sure the mission is successful?'”
The call changed everything
Before the crew’s disappearance was even confirmed, Hubbard received a call from NASA’s administrator’s office asking him to represent the agency in an investigation into what happened. .
The administrator at the time was Sean O’Keefe, who was with the astronauts’ families when it became clear something was amiss.
“The mood went from excitement and anticipation to despair, when it became clear that the shuttle wouldn’t come home,” he told Sky News.
“Usually you can set your clock to know when the space shuttle is going through the atmosphere. Like the launch date, we have a countdown timer, with these large numbers going down.
“It arrives within about two minutes of 00 – usually before you see the shuttle, you’ll hear two supersonic booms as the shuttle passes the sound barrier, which tells you it’s about to land. wings. Neither of the sonic booms appeared.”
The disintegration of Columbia has occurred, its wreckage pouring down on Texas while loved ones of the crew wait unknowingly at Kennedy Space Center.
Not long after, the official investigation was launched.
Scott Hubbard was selected as NASA’s sole representative on the investigation team to work with Air Force generals, Navy admirals and former US astronauts to paint a detailed picture of why Columbia ended in tragedy.
“I know, if we were to face the loss of crew, it would have the same impact on the agency as the Challenger crash years ago,” he said.
“So I went into this determined to do whatever I could.”
‘The hardest task’
Columbia’s investigation is expected to last 30 days. It ended up taking six months.
Starting with a seven-day workweek from a base outside of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Hubbard called it “the hardest mission” of his 20 years at NASA.
“The first part is the search and recovery operation for the crew’s remains is very sad, so families may have some closures,” he said. The remains of all seven astronauts were found.
About 25,000 people, O’Keefe recalls, were involved in the effort to collect debris from the wreckage, which was scattered over a 200-mile stretch of land from Dallas to the Louisiana border.
Hubbard’s background in science and engineering suggests he was tasked with focusing on the technical cause of the crash.
Hubbard recalls: “Initially, it was circumstantial evidence.
“Only one good, high-resolution image shows this piece of foam falling out of the main bin and hitting somewhere on the shuttle’s left wing, followed by a burst of debris.”
That incident didn’t happen during re-entry, but after launch on January 16 – 82 seconds after flight.
Mission controllers informed the commander and the pilot, who were assured that – as it had also happened on previous missions – there was no reason to be alarmed when returning.
Proving the cause of the tragedy
But as Columbia re-entered the atmosphere, damage to the wing created “superheated gas” that led to the wing’s destruction and, subsequently, the disintegration of the entire shuttle.
“Foaming off has been happening since the shuttle’s first flight, 30 years ago,” Hubbard said.
“But even though it was initially treated as a flight anomaly, which was the most serious issue, it was ultimately treated as a turnaround problem, just a maintenance issue, and downgraded to severity.
“We think this arbitrary approach, to a serious problem, was one of the organized causes of the accident.”
Due to a “sense of rejection” Among those interviewed during the investigation, Hubbard said he pushed for an experiment aimed at recreating the so-called anomaly, addressing a Texas research facility used to simulate the impact. of a bird hitting aircraft parts.
Over the course of many months, it has been configured to the specifications of what happened to Columbia.
The test was conducted on live television on July 7, 2003 – and the results are beyond doubt.
“It triggered two emotions in me at the same time,” Hubbard recalls.
“One is ‘yes, we proved it’, and the other is ‘Oh my God, this is how these people die’.
“And that was… quite a while.”
The full report by the Columbia Accident Investigations Board – which O’Keefe received 10 days before publication in August 2003 – made 29 recommendations to improve the safety of space shuttle flights. future, all approved by NASA.
They added that foam dropped from the shuttle’s external storage tank during launch, as has been accepted by NASA engineers as par, should not be allowed to happen again.
The agency has not lost any astronauts in spaceflight since then.
“It’s a tough report,” said O’Keefe. “There’s nothing gentle about it. But it’s very important, it’s something we need to hear.”
NASA commemorates the victims of Columbia, as well as their other fallen astronauts, each January, with flowers laid and tributes read during a memorial service at the Space Center Kennedy.
The Cape Canaveral site has been a hub of excitement since November, when the Artemis mission kicked off NASA’s effort to return humans to the moon for the first time in more than 50 years.
Space is also increasingly becoming the playground of private businesses, with companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin setting themselves big goals to go further than before. O’Keefe says it’s a worthy venture, but – despite all the astonishment many feel when witnessing a launch – is never a project people lose sight of. risk vision.
“The nature of it just scares me every time,” he admits. “Everybody who’s been talking about ‘routine’ space shuttle launches – no such thing. Every single one of them is an opportunity for disaster, and that’s what it is.
“But throughout human history, we’ve done things that are inherently dangerous because our curiosity overwhelms us.”
For Hubbard, who became chairman of SpaceX’s safety committee in 2012, which included Elon Musk among those who received his advice, the lessons learned from Columbia are becoming increasingly important.
He told Sky News: “Space is a difficult thing to do, launching people into space is very difficult and we have been fortunate that so far there have been relatively few disasters.” (NASA lost 15 astronauts in spaceflight: seven at Columbia and Challenger, and one, Michael Adams, during a suborbital flight in 1967.)
Hubbard says the Columbia experience has “deeply changed” his view of human exploration of space, but our shared ambition to go further, faster, is only one-way.
“Whatever rocket you send up there, you can’t say for sure that it’s going to work,” says O’Keefe. “But instead it’s: ‘Let’s not go?’ And the answer is, you can’t be resentful of that.”