Columbia crew were not told that the shuttle had been damaged and they might not survive re-entry, NASA has revealed.
The seven astronauts who died will be remembered at a public memorial service on the 10th anniversary of the disaster this Friday at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.
The shuttle was headed home from a 16-day science mission when it broke apart over Texas on February 1, 2003, because of damage to its left wing.
Ten years ago, experts at NASA’s mission control faced the terrible decision over whether to let the astronauts know that they may die on re-entry or face orbiting in space until the oxygen ran out.
Those on the ground decided that it would be better if the crew were spared knowledge of the risks.
There was no way to repair any suspected damage – the crew were far from the International Space Station and had no robotic arm for repairs. It would have taken too long to send up another shuttle to rescue them.
Wayne Hale, who went on to become space shuttle program manager, has written on his blog about the fateful day.
Wayne Hale writes: “After one of the MMTs (Mission Management Team) when possible damage to the orbiter was discussed, he (Flight Director Jon Harpold) gave me his opinion: <<You know, there is nothing we can do about damage to the TPS (Thermal Protection System). If it has been damaged it’s probably better not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don’t you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done, until the air ran out?>>.”
When Mission Control had it confirmed that the shuttle had broken up over Texas, Flight Director Leroy Cain ordered the room on lock-down and all computer data saved for later investigation.
All seven on board – David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, William McCool and Ilan Ramon – were known to be dead within minutes.
Following the crash, low-level engineers at Johnson Space Center revealed that they had tried to alert NASA senior staff about problems with the shuttle.
The investigation into the Columbia disaster revealed that a piece of foam the size of a briefcase was the physical cause of the accident. It had smashed into the shuttle’s wing during take-off and left a hole in the protective tiles, leaving the shuttle vulnerable on re-entry.
Wayne Hale is the only person at NASA who publicly accepted blame, according to ABC.
NASA flights resumed two years later and the shuttles were retired in 2011.
As the memorial takes place on Friday, 12 children will remember the parents they lost. A decade later, the youngest is now 15 and the oldest is 32.
The oldest son of Columbia’s pilot is now a Marine captain with three young children of his own.
The son of astronaut Dr. Laurel Clark, Iain Clark is a young man on the cusp of college with a master’s rating in scuba diving and three parachute jumps in his new log book.
His mother loved scuba and skydiving. So did her flight surgeon husband and Iain’s dad, Dr. Jonathan Clark, who since the accident, has been a crusader for keeping space crews safe.
Neurologist Dr. Jonathan Clark told the Associated Press: “It’s tough losing a mom, that’s for sure. I think Iain was the most affected.
“My goal was to keep him alive. That was the plan. It was kind of dicey for a while. There was a lot of darkness – for him and me.”
Jonathan Clark’s wife and the six other astronauts were killed in the final minutes of their 16-day scientific research mission aboard Columbia.
Jonathan Clark, now 59, said he turned to alcohol in the aftermath of Columbia. If it wasn’t for his son, he doubts he would have gotten through it.
“He’s the greatest kid ever,” Jonathan Clark said in a phone interview from Houston.
“He cares about people. He’s kind of starting to get his confidence, but he’s not at all cocky.”