February 01, 2004

Remembering Columbia

Today, we remember some of the world's many heros:

  • Rick D. Husband, Commander: Rick Husband's childhood dream was to become an astronaut.
  • William C. McCool, Pilot: Willie McCool loved to see “the eyes light up when you talk to kids” about space.
  • Michael P. Anderson, Payload Commander: “Very early on,” Michael Anderson “thought being an astronaut would be a fantastic thing to do.”
  • David M. Brown, Mission Specialist 1: As a kid, David Brown thought of astronauts as “movie stars.”
  • Kalpana Chawla, Mission Specialist 2: Kalpana Chawla's path to become an astronaut began in Karnal, India.
  • Laurel Blair Salton Clark, Mission Specialist 4: Laurel Clark felt “incredibly lucky” to see Earth from the unique vantage point of space.
  • Ilan Ramon, Payload Specialist 1: Son of a Holocaust survivor, Israel Air Force Colonel Ilan Ramon was that nation's first astronaut.

Read the NASA memorial page here, or, read what I think may be the single best piece written about Columbia, Bill Whittle's Courage, here.

Sensors fail all the time. But this was different. This was a pattern, and it was spreading. And something was starting to pull the ship to the left.

I don’t know the words he used, but I can hear the tone perfectly in my head, because it’s exactly the same tone I’ve heard dozens of times on cockpit voice recorders. It’s concern. Alarm, even. But it’s cool. Disciplined.

All right, we’ve got a problem here…

The Pilot and Mission Commander probably never exchanged the knowing look that we’d see in the movie. They were too busy working the problem. But in the two seats behind them, and the three below, those five brave passengers looked at each other and now the smiles and the grins were gone.

Something was wrong with Columbia’s left wing. The air that should be slipping over and under her like water off the back of a duck had found something to hold on to: perhaps some missing tiles, perhaps a dent, or a micrometeorite hit – we just don’t know. But 3000 degree ionized air was pushing into that wing, and heat sensors were winking out one by one because they were being burned through by gas far hotter and sharper than that at the end of a blowtorch.

Guys, we’re in real trouble here.

The Commander would have told them. I have no doubt of this at all. You love and respect those people, people who have shown courage the likes of which we will never know. These are not babies, not shrieking, hysterical, self-centered adults either. These are astronauts. They deserve to know.

The air pushing backward and into that left wing continued to yaw the nose of the orbiter to the left. This cannot be allowed to happen – the ship will disintegrate if she doesn’t come in at exactly the right angle. So the computers flying Columbia commanded the aircraft to roll right, to bring that left wing forward using the rudder and elevons, the controls on the wing and tail that made Columbia an airplane and not merely a space capsule.

It wasn’t working. Columbia still pulled hard to the left, so hard that the computers fired the attitude control rockets on the nose to try and force it back into the relative wind. When that happened, when they heard the roar of those rockets firing in a last desperate effort to keep that ship intact, and when the rockets fired again, and kept firing, Rick Husband and Willie McCool must have known that they were not going home that day.

Guys, it’s Rick. I don’t think we’re gonna make it.

And I know what courage did for these people. I know they looked at each other and nodded, and whether they actually said goodbye I know it was in their eyes. We know it. We know. We saw it on the deck of the Titanic, in the aisles on United Flight 93. On some level, they had all said goodbye to their families and their lives before they walked through that circular hatch, right below the word COLUMBIA.

When PSA Flight 182 collided with a small plane over San Diego in 1978, and dove straight into the ground trailing fire from the wing, the last words on the Cockpit Voice Recorder was a calm, level, “Ma, I love you.”

And in that last second, there may just have been enough time, as that bulkhead wall opened into golden and purple light, to smile and think, It was worth it. It was a great ride. I wouldn’t have traded this for the m

Buildings shook in Texas. Columbia was coming home.

Read it all.

(This post is cross-posted here.)

Posted by Avocare at February 1, 2004 08:34 AM | TrackBack
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