Tag Archives: STS-107

Innocence, 30 Years Later

Thirty years ago, I was in second grade. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was my last year at the elementary school that I attended and  lots of change would be coming over the next several years for me. Thirty years ago, I was young and didn’t believe that bad things could happen to me, to anyone I knew, or to my country. Thirty years ago, I had my innocence and it was a great state to be in.

On January 28, 1986, I was playing on the playground during morning recess and a friend came up to me and said, “the space shuttle exploded.” My first response was sheer incredulity, that he was testing me, to see if I would react… I said, “No, it didn’t, the Space Shuttle CAN’T explode.” I didn’t believe that such a thing could even happen. Space travel was routine, with the first shuttle launch just after my third birthday and the 25th scheduled for that morning. My friend replied, “yes it did, as it was launching this morning.” I still didn’t believe him. I couldn’t grasp that an event such as this was even possible.

From there, in my memory, that day becomes a big blur. The next thing I remember is being at a different friend’s house in the evening working on homework. The adults were in a different room, doing adult things. The room we were in had a TV, which was tuned to the news. They were showing Challenger’s 73 second flight over and over and over again. I’m sure that there were talking heads interspersed between the replays, but all I remember are the replays, over and over again. Looking back now, that was the beginning of the end of my innocence. The end of the belief that bad things couldn’t happen.

Every year, in mid-January, I post four pictures on my office door. The first is the Apollo 1 Crew, the second is the STS 51-L (Challenger) Crew, the third is the STS-107 (Columbia) Crew, and the final is a Red and Rover cartoon by Brian Bassett commemorating the aforementioned crews that all lost their lives in service of exploration.  I picked these pictures of the three crews because I think they represent the potential of the missions. Each crew is in their space suits, seemingly ready for launch, ready to being their exploration. I post these cartoons no later than January 16th, my birthday, which is the day that Columbia and her crew launched on their final mission in 2003. It’s also the day that the damage that caused Columbia’s demise occurred, though it would not happen for another fifteen days.

Last night I watched a wonderful documentary about the Challenger accident. The documentary focused not on the technical details of the accident, but on the reactions that people had to it. I was particularly taken by the audio of a reporter from Concord, New Hampshire, who was at KSC reporting on the flight because of its most famous crew member Christa McAuliffe. His station played several minutes of his spontaneous reactions to the incident, and at one point, he basically says, “I can’t talk any more. I’m in shock, I need to process this…” at which point I can imagine his dropping the phone he’s been talking in to and walking away. This struck me because it’s how I’ve been feeling since I posted those four photos on my office door.

Today, in 2016, my son is in second grade. He attends the same school that I did on that fateful day in January 1986, and though it’s been rebuilt, he plays on the same playground that I was playing on thirty years ago when I learned the news of the Challenger disaster. For some reason, this parallel, this coincidence that came about because he was born in my thirtieth year and started kindergarten when he did, has been bothering me this week. Ever since I put up those photos a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about my experience on the playground thirty years ago. I’ve been thinking about the beginning of the loss of my innocence and the changes that would occur in my life. I feel like spaceflight, to most people is again routine and the fact that there have been astronauts in space for nearly twice my son’s lifetime is taken for granted (if it’s even known) by most people. I feel like so much of the technology that we use on a daily basis, most of which was developed directly or indirectly as a part of the space program, is taken for granted.

My son is fully ensconced in his innocence and I work hard to protect that for him. I wonder what he will look back upon some day as the beginning of the end of his innocence. I hope that it will not be for a long time. I hope that I won’t be a cause of the beginning of this change in him. This year and ever year, I choose to remember the crews of Apollo 1, STS 51-L, and STS-107 in their flight suits, looking like they’re headed to the pad to launch into space and explore our universe.

I choose to look at them with the innocence of a child, knowing that it is not possible for anything to go wrong. I know that this is not true, I know that complacency and apathy will create problems for my country and my world. I just hope that my son won’t realize this for a long, long, time. I want to remember him like this, full of promise, full of innocence, and full of potential. I want all kids to have a look like on their face like my friend Shannon Moore‘s daughter Sara does in this picture.


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STS-107 Disaster in Mission Control

As those who know me have already gathered, I’m a NASA geek, specifically a Mission Control geek. Though they don’t make it space, but the engineers and technicians in Mission Control and at the other NASA centers make the human spaceflight program possible.

The video below breaks my heart. It was taken in what is called the White Flight Control Room in Building 30 at Johnson Space Center in Houston, on February 1, 2003 as Columbia was making her way from orbit to earth.  What you hear is the conversations between the controllers and the Flight Director as they read the clues and gather the data and come to the realization that something has gone terribly wrong. These are men and women who have dedicated their lives to the safe operation of the Space Shuttle and International Space Station.

Watch this video, watch it again, see and hear the anguish in the voices of the controllers, see how they keep on doing their jobs even as they realize that the worst has happened to their friends, colleagues, and indeed, the entire space program. Then think that 10 years have gone by since this happened, we still have a manned outpost in space and we’re working on getting out of low Earth orbit once again. The people in this room are those who are getting us there, a fact which gives me tremendous comfort!

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A Tough Week in NASA History

Today begins a tough week in the history of NASA. All three of NASA’s major accidents have happened between January 27th and February 1st:

January 27, 1967 – Apollo 1 Fire

January 28, 1986 – Challenger (STS-51L) Disaster

February 1, 2003 – Columbia (STS-107) Disaster

Each of these events happened at a different stage of the mission, each of them had their own technical causes, but in my opinion, each was caused by ignoring or accepting some of the risks of spaceflight. After each accident, the people of NASA got together to solve the problem and make human space flight possible again.

As you go about your week today, remember the Apollo 1 Crew: Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee;

Apollo 1 Crew


the STS-51L Crew: Francis R. Scobee, Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnick, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe;

STS-51L (Challenger) Crew


as well as the STS-107 Crew: Rick Husband, William McCool, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon

STS-107 Crew

and the sacrifices they made for knowledge, understanding, and their country. Be proud of the work they have done and be hopeful for the future of spaceflight and of humanity.

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The Space Shuttle Columbia Lifted Off 10 Years Ago Today for the Final Time

Ten years ago today, the space Shuttle Columbia lifted off for the final time. When the liftoff occurred, no one knew that it would be here final departure from the planet. Rather, it was the start of a science mission scheduled to last about two weeks. Onboard the orbiter were seven astronauts:

  • Commander Rick Husband
  • Pilot William McCool
  • Mission Specialist David Brown
  • Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla
  • Payload Commander Michael Anderson
  • Mission Specialist Laurel Clark
  • Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon

About 82 seconds after lift off, a large piece of the insulating foam on the external tank came loose and hit leading edge of Columbia’s left wing. This incident was captured on the film of the launch as a white streak training away from the wing as the shuttle ascended. Over the next two weeks, the crew flawlessly executed their mission, knowing that something had struck the wing, but not knowing that this impact would cause the end of their lives.

On the ground, at Mission Control in Houston and at other NASA Centers, some engineers were not so certain that the impact hadn’t caused damage. In the end, however, there wasn’t much done to investigate the effects of the impact. Truthfully, nothing could have been done to repair the damage.

Wayne Hale, a Flight Director at Mission Control and leader in the Shuttle program, has written a series of blog posts over the past several months examining the totality of the Columbia disaster, which are definitely worth a read. See his blog at waynehale.wordpress.com for his insights.

Over the next couple of weeks, I hope to post more thoughts on the Columbia disaster, its place in history, and other related topics.

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For Me, NASA Means Hope

Many people have “Where Were You When…?” dates. These are the dates that you will always have an indelible picture in your mind of where you were. My first is January 28, 1986, the day of the Challenger disaster. This is the first real experience with tragedy and I remember the experience of that day as if it were yesterday. I know that’s a weird way to start a post about NASA meaning hope, but I want to make the point about how important NASA and the Space Shuttle Program have been to me.

NASA is an agency that brings the aspirations of our nation to the forefront. It’s about coming together to do what can’t be done now. NASA is about living up our promise and pushing our limits.  NASA is about doing things, “… not because they are easy, but because they are hard” as President Kennedy put it.

For my entire life, NASA and the Space Shuttle in particular, have meant hope to me. It has represented the ability of our nation and people around the world to break the bonds of gravity and get off our planet. For a child of divorce, getting up and away from the gravity of every day life meant a lot to me. As a child, my coping mechanism was taking on the job to keep everybody else happy, but when I was thinking about space (or some other things) I was able to rise above the every day of my life and think about the pure possibilities presented by life. If humans could get to a place where even the law of gravity didn’t apply, then I could imagine a place where it wasn’t my job to make sure everyone else was happy, where what I wanted wasn’t important, in short, a place where I mattered. The fact that Astronauts are national heroes made it even better. I could imagine myself getting away from the gravity of earth and when I came back, I would be the hero… As I grew up, I began to take NASA and the Space Shuttle program for granted. As designed, the program became routine for me. There were Shuttles flying on a regular basis and it seemed far away from my daily life.

Then came February 1, 2003, my second “Where Were You When…?” date. I knew that the STS-107 mission had launched on my birthday, but didn’t think much about it. I was at the beginning of a very busy time in my job and was completely focused on that reality, not that of the seven explorers circling above my head. February 1, 2003 was a Saturday morning. I was headed in to work to try and stay on top of things. As I drove the 42 freeway miles between my home and my office, I turned on the radio and they were taking about the landing of Columbia. I figured it would be a short segment, describing the touchdown and then we would get back to regular programming. In truth, I wasn’t much listening, instead, I was thinking about the day’s work. I did, however notice that regular programming had not returned and Columbia’s landing was the still the subject of the conversation. I began to listen more closely, and realizing what had happened, I was truly taken aback. For the second time in my life, Astronauts had been lost in flight.

Between 1986 and 2003, technology had advanced greatly, so I got in to work and started doing all the research I could on the STS-107 mission, and kept up closely with the news. More important than that, my interest in NASA, the Space Shuttle Program, and space in general was rekindled. The new technology meant that when flights resumed in 2005, I was able to watch them from my desk and download a great deal of information about the mission. I was able to reconnect with the program and NASA, which was a wonderful thing.

As 2005 turned to 2006 and the second return to flight mission occurred, I was able to get more and more information about the program, watch the missions live on my computer, and feel a similar sense of wonder about space travel as I had when I was a kid. The years went on and my interest continued and grew. By the time the STS-125 mission occurred in 2009, I was a full on space geek. I was able to witness the law of gravity being broken in real-time, for the entire duration of each Space Shuttle mission.  I was also able to learn more about the program and the people who made it work.

When I joined Twitter in October of 2008, little did I know that It would lead me to attend a Space Shuttle launch, visit Mission Control and Johnson Space Center (twice) and find a community of space geeks across the world, just like me. I’ve learned that space doesn’t just mean manned space flight. It means journeys to other planets to observe and explore the surface. It means getting outside our Solar System and putting human existence into a universal perspective, as Carl Sagan did with the famous Pale Blue Dot photo taken in 1990 by Voyager 1 at a distance of 3.7 billion miles from Earth.

Voyager 1 remains the furthest human built object away from earth. It is approximately 11,061,750,600 miles from Earth today. Even more amazing is the fact that we can still communicate with it.

For me, NASA means an escape from the gravity of life and Earth. It means a community of friends who shares an interest and love for space. It means human achievement that I can share with my son and daughter. For me, NASA means hope.

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STS-107 – 8 Years Ago Today

On my 25th birthday, the Space Shuttle Columbia launched on the STS-107 mission to do research on myriad topics in low earth orbit. I remember hearing about the launch, but was very involved in my job and didn’t have the chance to watch it. I had a new job and was quickly learning how to do things in a fast paced legislative environment.

Fast forward two weeks, to the evening of January 31, 2003. It was a Friday night and I had dinner with some friends as my wife was out of town. We got in to one of those “Where were you when” conversations.  I talked about the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, they talked about several events that they remembered, and the discussion settled down to January 28, 1986. On that fateful morning, the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after launch. My friends and I talked about where we were, how we felt, and how it changed us. We spent a good deal of time talking about these topics, after which, I headed home.

The next morning, I woke up and headed the 60 or so miles to work. About 1/2 way there, I turned the radio on to NPR and they were discussing the landing of the Columbia. I started listening, expecting it to be a routine 3 or four minute broadcast of the landing. It was a snowy day, so I was paying more attention to driving than I was the radio, but it slowly sank in that they were still talking about Columbia NOT landing, rather than the smooth landing I expected. The remainder of the trip, I was glued to the radio, trying to take in all that was going on.

I got to work and turned on the TV in my office and rather than getting any work done, as was my plan, I was glued to CNN watching the story unfold. I remember hearing the capcom, who I think was Charlie Hobaugh, saying, “Columbia, Houston, Comm Check…” over and over again with no response. Obviously, there was something wrong…

I’m thankful for the Columbia disaster in many ways because it rekindled my interest in space and human space flight. I’ve watched every launch and most landings since then and found a great community of space tweeps. I’ve been able to help my son develop an awareness and a love of space. I’ve experienced a launch in person and visited Mission Control in Houston.

Even though a lot of good has come from the tragedy, I find myself down today. I’m reading all these reports from people who work at NASA and where they were on this day 8 years ago. Most of them express sadness, some express hope, but the sadness gets me today. I look over at the pictures of the Apollo 1 crew, the crew of STS-51L, and the STS-107 crew and I feel that we could have done better by them. I hope that we will continue to learn from the mistakes we collectively made that cost them their lives.

I hope that we will be able to live up to their legacy.

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