The Purple Corkscrew
At 5:53am on the morning of February 1, 2003, Sarah and I stood on Bernal Hill in San Francisco looking west in the sky. Broken low clouds had barely parted enough for us to find what we had come for, above the western horizon. “There it is,” I said, as a pale orange dot began to brighten and move slightly north. I aimed my camera and began a series of time exposure pictures of the elongating orange trail. Repositioning the camera about every 10 seconds, I captured five images of the Space Shuttle Columbia, as it flew from hundreds of miles offshore, passed north over Napa Valley, then Tahoe and into Nevada. It was over in less than 2 minutes.
We drove down the hill with the windows open, listening for the sonic boom. Sarah thought she heard it, but I, as the “authority” on such matters said, “Nope, you’ll know it when you hear it… last time it shook the house.” We never heard it.
Just a few minutes after 6am we were back home. I turned on the TV and began to download the fresh pictures. Soon I had the fresh pictures on my desktop and began clicking through them. First to view were four test shots of the city skyline, which I had used to adjust the time exposure. Then the first image… ‘damn it’, I thought, ‘the telephone pole was right in the way.’ Second image was better, a long straight purple line, sort of interesting, but only if you knew what it represented. The third picture appeared on the monitor, showing a longer contrail, but similar to the second image… except for something odd on the left side.
“What the… hey, Sarah, come and look at this!”
She didn’t hear me. NASA-TV was streaming in a corner of my PC screen, a real TV was on in the other room. Tuned to a cable news outlet, I was expecting to see Columbia make her final approach to the runway at Kennedy Space Center. Instead I heard a flight controller say “still awaiting contact” and saw a lot of serious faces at Mission Control. Looking at the clock, I could see it was a little after 6:15am. Landing at Kennedy was scheduled for 9:16am EST, and the spacecraft had still not resumed communications. A shiver went through my body. Having closely watched space missions for almost 40 years, including dozens of shuttle flights, I knew the normal duration of communication blackouts during re-entry should be long past.
On my computer was the digital image of a long, bright blue-white line set against a black background. The line, pale on the left side and bold on the right, had something that grabbed the eye… a jagged purple line, a corkscrew, that originated from blackness, crossed under the shuttle contrail, then turned sharply to intersect the shuttle’s plasma contrail. At the point of intersection, the contrail brightened sharply, then slowly faded as the line moved east.
I think it might be just what it looks like. Lightning hitting the shuttle.
Lightning? Indeed, could this be what it so clearly appears to be? That doesn’t make sense, there are no clouds nearby, the shuttle was much higher than a thunderstorm, and nothing like this has ever happened before. On the TV in the background, the scene in Houston has become grim and Flight Director Leroy Cain orders the doors locked. Columbia is lost, and suddenly it seems that I am the only person on earth who knows what happened.
… except that is not how it turned out.
Now, ten years past, the Columbia accident has been thoroughly investigated and the conclusion inescapable. A block of foam insulation tore off the external tank and impacted the leading edge of the left wing, creating a hole through which a hot plasma of atmospheric gases entered. The blowtorch cut through sensor wires and structural aluminum until the computerized avionics were no longer able to maintain the critical entry profile. The left wing folded, the spacecraft began a tumble and immediately began to disintegrate. What the seven people on board experienced was sudden, unstoppable, and too awful to detail. We may be assured and perhaps comforted; the experts have said that they did not suffer long.
Two dozen amateur space enthusiasts had photographed Columbia that morning and we quickly offered what had been observed to NASA. Since my photo was among the few earliest images, and because the “purple corkscrew” matched the exact moment that Mission Control detected the 1st sensor anomaly in the left wing, my one image briefly became the focus of the accident investigation. NASA sent an astronaut to retrieve my camera. I spoke to the San Francisco Chronicle about it, and the story (without my name or the photo) took off. NASA convened a ‘tiger team’ of experts to check it out, sparing no time or cost.
The attention also went to the other amateur photography, including video, that showed debris separating from the orbiter. NASA was stunned by the number of amateurs and the quality of their data… it had never occurred to them that such space geekery existed. Scientists, engineers and optics experts used all their tools on the imagery, and produced detailed maps of areas where the first pieces would have landed in the Western US. NASA was gearing up to send thousands of personnel to cover hundreds of square miles of deserts and mountains to find what came off the shuttle first. Such was the urgency that surrounded the mystery of what felled STS-107. The media, of course, did what they do when they have an eager audience and few facts… they speculated.
For two weeks, every waking moment I was following the accident investigation. With the exception of the foam impact on the wing that was recorded during Columbia’s launch, the “purple bolt of lightning” remained the most popular theory in the news. The thought that a heavenly bolt of lightning doomed the spacecraft was more appealing than a chunk of foam the size and density of a small styrofoam ice chest.
In reality, NASA managers were slowly coming to realize the cause was that mundane piece of foam, something they had seen many times before but never fixed. Also, the physics behind an electrical discharge of some sort in a cloudless sky did not quite add up. Finally, as more telemetry became available, the timeline of sensor anomalies moved up a few seconds, to a point before the shuttle was hit by the bolt. If it was struck by space lightning, it was after sensors in the wing began to misbehave.
Finally, on March 19th, shuttle debris searchers were directed to redo a specific area of interest near Hemphill, Texas. There, in a thick bramble and sitting in an inch of water, they found the Orbiter Experiment Support System Recorder, a relic of 1970’s magnetic tape technology that was only flown on the oldest shuttle. Designed to collect engineering data for later analysis, it had recorded temperatures and stresses indicative of a breach in the left wing beginning at 5:49am. Some months later, a careful experiment was conducted for the 1st time that actually tested what a foam impact did to the leading edge of a wing. The results were unequivocal and hardened NASA engineers were stunned. And for me it was clear… there was no purple bolt of lightning after all.
NASA’s tiger team of 10 world-renowned experts completed a 40 page study devoted to my photograph called “Potential for Discharge and Certain Other Space / Atmospheric Environment Effects in the Columbia Shuttle Orbiter Accident”. They also sent my camera to the FBI labs at Quantico. The FBI analyst, Richard Vorderbruegge, examined my camera and calculated that an imperceptible bump to the camera tripod, along with the persistence of the glowing plasma trail on the digital optics, could produce the curious and compelling image that I captured that morning. Vorderbruegge later approached me for permission to write about the photographic analysis and together we published the optical investigation in the Journal of Forensic Science. A British TV producer also sought me and the photo for a National Geographic program entitled “Megalightning”, and, though heavy on speculation, did not stray too far from the truth. Space science writer Philip Chien also published the infamous artifact in his book, “Columbia – Final Voyage”.
Those three productions are the only authorized uses of my photograph. Despite that, my image is reproduced without permission in hundreds of websites, almost all of which are presenting, of one sort or another, conspiracy behind the Columbia accident. Pick a fringe group, be it anti-government, fundamentalist believer, HAARP, chemclouds, right wing, left wing, secret dreams of psychics, etc… they all seem to have an angle on what really happened to the Columbia Shuttle, and it always involves the “purple corkscrew”, my “confiscated” camera and that “they” are forcing me to hide the truth. I know it is too much to expect these folks to respect a photograph copyright, let alone the public record of what happened.
The story I tell here is a small footnote to the history of the Columbia accident investigation, greatly abbreviated and omitting many names and events that were more important to the accident investigation. I have also left out the intense emotions that I suppressed a decade ago, as the tragedy unfolded while I believed I alone held an answer. Some contemporaneous words I wrote:
“Finally I was alone with my own thoughts. I had carefully tried to do what was right, right for the space program, and right for the crew, by quickly and accurately getting my observations to NASA. Though I knew the blockbuster potential of Image #3 from the first minutes the tragedy unfolded, I had kept calm and cool until the handover to (NASA astronaut) Tammy Jernigan. It was the calm and professional demeanor of Dr. Jernigan as she described her lost colleagues and friends that allowed me a profound sadness for the entire crew; Rick Husband, 45, William McCool, 41, Michael Anderson, 43, Dave Brown, 46, Kalpana Chawla, 41, Laurel Clark, 41, Ilan Ramon, 48. My unexpected duty to them was finished and the tears flowed freely throughout the rest of the night.”
The image that accompanies this article shows the glowing plasma trail of the orbiter as it approaches and passes the California coast. It is the first photo of Columbia taken that morning. Everything is nominal.
Pete Goldie holds a Ph.D. and 2 other graduate degrees from “old East Coast universities.” “I merely wish it known that I am a licensed ceramic tile & natural stone contractor and everything I write about space science is not only freely available but eagerly disseminated by federal government agencies through the judicious expenditure of income tax revenue.”