10 years later, loss of Columbia has changed NASA forever

NASA astronaut Jerry Ross recounts disaster

Published On: Feb 01 2013 06:26:00 AM EST   Updated On: Feb 01 2013 05:54:02 PM EST
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -

Ten years ago Friday, NASA astronaut Jerry Ross was in a convoy at the north end of Kennedy Space Center’s shuttle runway, awaiting the scheduled 9:16 a.m. arrival of Columbia and its seven-member crew.

[Story courtesy of Local 6 News partner Florida Today]

Eileen Collins, set to command the nation’s next shuttle mission just a month later, was at home in Houston watching live NASA TV coverage of Columbia’s atmospheric re-entry with her son, Luke, age 2 at the time.

Then, 16 minutes before touchdown, as Columbia soared over Texas, Mission Control lost telemetry and voice communications with the orbiter. Soon tracking data also disappeared.

“And, of course, we had a strong suspicion as to what that implied,” Ross said. “I stepped immediately outside of the vehicle and paused for a moment, and said a silent prayer for the souls of my friends on board.”

Mission Commander Rick Husband, Pilot Willie McCool, and two Mission Specialists — Laurel Clark and Kalpana Chawla — were on Columbia’s flight deck. On the middeck: Payload Commander Michael Anderson; Mission Specialist David Brown and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon.

All died that day, and the U.S. human spaceflight program suddenly faced sweeping change.

“It was a turning point, without a doubt,” said Collins, who commanded NASA’s first post-Columbia test flight. “Columbia really was a turning point for our strategy in space exploration.”

A decade later, NASA is in mid-pivot.

Flash back to Jan. 16, 2003: 81 seconds after liftoff, a 1.67-pound chunk of foam insulation broke free from Columbia’s 15-story external tank. A second later, it blasted a six- to 10-inch hole in the leading edge of the ship’s left wing.

The damage went undetected during a 16-day space science mission. Hot gases blow-torched through the wing as Columbia sped home. The ship disintegrated.

“They were a great crew. They really were. Very personable, very humble, very polite,” said Ross, co-holder with Franklin Chang-Diaz of the world record for most space missions flown — seven.

Ross had just started a new job as Chief of NASA’s Vehicle Integration Test Office, the organization that managed crew quarters at KSC and supported astronauts and their families before launches and after landings.

On launch day, Ross escorted Columbia’s astronauts partway to the launch pad. He was among the last to people to see them off.

Eleven months after the accident, on Jan. 14, 2004, then-President George W. Bush outlined his “Vision for Space Exploration” which called for the retirement of the shuttle fleet and development of a new crew exploration vehicle to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020.

The course changed under President Barack Obama.

Obama canceled “Project Constellation” in February 2010 after a presidential commission found it was on “an unsustainable trajectory.” He directed NASA to invest in the development of commercial spacecraft for missions to the International Space Station, and push toward a goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and the vicinity of Mars by the mid-2030s.

NASA flew its last shuttle mission in July 2011.

Both Ross and Collins are frustrated by the current state of the U.S. human spaceflight program.

Ross worries about the amount of money and focus being placed on the development of commercial transport systems.

“It’s taking the money out of NASA programs that should be the ones we’re funding through the federal government,” he said.

“The commercial systems are going to get us to low-Earth orbit, and we want to go beyond low-Earth orbit. We want to go out to the moon. We want to go on to Mars, and we’re diverting most of our resources, or a large portion of our resources, to just going back into low-Earth orbit. And that’s the wrong answer.”

Collins, who in the 1990s became the first female space pilot and mission commander, thinks the current plan is a good one — as long as human expeditions beyond Earth orbit are not forsaken.

“Am I happy with where we are right now? No, because I’m not a very patient person. I like to see things happen faster. So with the cancellation of Constellation, it really slowed us down,” Collins said.

“But there’s a program now, and I’m just praying that it doesn’t get canceled — that it’s successful, and that it’s safe. And that we actually make it happen,” Collins said.

So, should we venture back to the moon? Or journey to an asteroid? Or go straight to Mars?

It doesn’t matter.

“I think we should pick a destination and stop changing it,” Collins said. “You know, I think these are all good ideas. But at some point, we’ve just got to go do it.”