Skip to comments.Families of Columbia Crew Await Shuttle Report and Want It to Make a Difference
Posted on 08/13/2003 8:05:59 PM PDT by anymouse
Seeing the thing that brought down the space shuttle Columbia filled Jon Salton with sadness.
His sister, Laurel Clark, was one of the seven astronauts who died when the shuttle shattered on its return to Earth more than six months ago.
He viewed the video of the impact test in July that showed a chunk of foam insulation knocking a giant hole in shuttle wing parts.
"It's hard to watch that," he said. "It's utterly obvious now that type of impact could cause an orbiter to break apart.
"It didn't make me angry. It just made me sad."
NASA officials who didn't believe foam could do such damage "really missed the boat," Salton said in a telephone interview from Albuquerque, N.M., where he lives. The breakaway foam that slammed into the shuttle's left wing during Columbia's launch is being blamed for creating a hole that let in hot atmospheric gases that led to its destruction.
Once employed by a NASA contractor, Salton has been watching closely the work of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which will issue its report on the shuttle disaster at the end of this month.
Part of him wants NASA to feel the sting of the report's criticism.
The other astronauts' families have been watching, too, not all as intensely as Salton, nor with such a critical eye. Some like Evelyn Husband, wife of Columbia commander Rick Husband, and Barbara Anderson, mother of astronaut Michael Anderson, are simply awaiting the final report.
"I'd like to wait until they finish the work of the investigation committee. Then I'll get a better picture," said Eliezer Wolferman, the 80-year-old father of Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon.
"We have read (about the investigation) in the newspapers. I'd like to have something official," he said in a telephone interview from his home in the Israeli town of Omer.
Most family members who spoke with The Associated Press said they simply want the shuttle fixed and able to fly again more safely. Some said they appreciated the candor of the accident board. The family of astronaut David Brown could not be reached for comment.
Laurel Clark's husband, Jonathan, said he was grateful for the foam test because it confirms the cause of the accident.
"I felt it was great they were able to find a more definitive answer," he said. "I really don't look at it emotionally. I look at it analytically. I'm glad we found what did this."
Some peace of mind has come from the ongoing investigation and the 13 board members' work, said Clark, a NASA flight surgeon at Johnson Space Center.
"Talking to other family members, (we have) been very pleased with their thoroughness, their professionalism," he said. "They truly are an independent, free-thinking group. For that we're all very grateful."
Clark, 50, thinks the preliminary recommendations the board has already made, including finding ways to do in-orbit inspections and repairs and better preflight safety checks, are very prudent.
Still, he says, "It's one thing to say it but another to do it."
Both he and Salton pointed to a NASA culture that may make questioning decisions difficult.
"There's this cultural mind-set that's present here," said Clark. "It's not an evil thing. It's great to have that 'let's go' spirit, but sometimes you push things to beyond where you should. But this is not about fault, it's about cause."
Salton worked five years at NASA designing tools used on spacewalks. He said that while he believes there was nothing malicious about the space agency's faulty assessment of the foam strike, he thinks it fell prey to a cultural attitude that's existed since before the 1986 Challenger accident.
"You want to succeed so badly that you tend to justify things that may not be logical to a more objective party," he said. "All the technical recommendations seem somewhat obvious. The biggest thing that I'm anxious to see is what they say about the cultural practices. Those are much, much more important."
Salton, 37, who now works for Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, said he hopes the board's final report will have accountability measures.
While he wants shuttles to fly again, he is bothered that NASA has already set a time frame to return to space. Overall, he has been pleased by the accident board's work.
"The report should be a sharp, kind of stinging feeling to NASA. I like the fact the board has been pretty candid. It's a good example of the kind of integrity that NASA could follow," he said.
The reactions of others are more tempered.
Husband, 44, who lives in Houston, doesn't fault NASA or anybody for the accident.
"Hindsight, like they say, is 20/20," she said. "So now it's easy to say, 'Oh we should have done that.'"
Later in a statement she issued after the foam impact test, Husband said: "My prayer is that NASA will fix it and get back into space. That is what my husband Rick would have wanted."
Michael Anderson's mother, Barbara Anderson, also does not cast blame. Her son was a pilot almost 20 years. "There was danger there," she said from her home in Spokane, Wash. "It could have happened in a plane as well as in a shuttle. We accepted it."
Audrey McCool of Las Vegas has only followed in a general way the investigation into the accident that killed her son, William McCool.
She looks forward to the report and a detailed explanation of the cause. But she is philosophical.
"What's done is done," she said. "No repairs will bring Columbia back but you want to prevent future disasters. These seven people will have died in vain if we do not carry on with the work they were committed to."
The Chawla family, too, wants to see future shuttle flights. Girish Chawla of suburban Atlanta, younger brother of crew member Kalpana Chawla, said his family "has accepted that this was an act of existence or an act of God."
"Mother said the show must go on. Father was sometimes emotional, saying it was a stupid thing that caused the accident. But it was just the mood of the moment," Chawla said. "Just because Kalpana died doesn't mean it shouldn't go on."
"I'm so proud to be a part of this great mass deception."--Frank Zappa