A NASA flight director has revealed that personnel on the ground knew in 2003 that the Space Shuttle Columbia would not likely survive re-entry, but chose not to inform the vessel’s crew. According to an ABC News report from Thursday, when faced with the choice of letting the astronauts die trying to come home or leaving them to orbit until their air ran out, high-ranking NASA officials chose to let the Columbia crew die in ignorance of what was to befall them.
Wayne Hale, who became a Space Shuttle program manager in the years after the Columbia disaster, wrote on his blog Thursday about the meeting among ground personnel at Johnson Space Center as they grappled with the decision. Video of Columbia’s takeoff showed a briefcase-sized chunk of foam breaking off an engine and colliding with the shuttle’s wing, gouging a hole in the shield designed to protect the craft from the furious heat generated as it crossed from the vacuum of space into the atmosphere.
When it became clear that the orbiter was seriously damaged and likely wouldn’t survive re-entry, Flight Director Jon Harpold said to Hale and others at the meeting, “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?”
On Feb. 3, 2003, engineers and managers watched helplessly as the vehicle broke up into a trail of fireballs in the upper atmosphere, killing all 7 astronauts on board. The crew was made up of five men and two women, David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, William McCool and Ilan Ramon.
The surviving children of the astronauts will take part in a commemorative ceremony to be held on the 10th anniversary of the accident on Friday.
UPDATE: [Ed. note: The original headline of the piece reflected more scientific certainty than was available at the time of the explosion and has been updated to better reflect the scientific uncertainty with which scientists and engineers struggled. The complete quote from Hale's journal of the incident is as follows,
Jon Harpold was the Director of Mission Operations, my supreme boss as a Flight Director. He had spent his early career in shuttle entry analysis. He knew more about shuttle entry than anybody; the guidance, the navigation, the flight control, the thermal environments and how to control them. After one of the MMTs when possible damage to the orbiter was discussed, he gave me his opinion: “You know, there is nothing we can do about damage to the TPS. 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?”
I was hard pressed to disagree. That mindset was widespread. Astronauts agreed. So don’t blame an individual; looks for the organizational factors that lead to that kind of a mindset. Don’t let them in your organization.
After the accident, when we were reconstituting the Mission Management Team, my words to them were “We are never ever going to say that there is nothing we can do.” That is hindsight.
From Hale's blog post and a 2003 interview with ABC by engineer Rodney Rocha, it appears that while some people thought the uncertainty of the damage could be put to rest before a decision about reentry needed to be made, the bureaucracy at NASA reportedly stifled the ability of engineers to make a concrete determination.]
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