Skip to comments.NASA Official Says He Held on to Hope in Shuttle's Final Moments
Posted on 02/15/2003 5:56:15 AM PST by JohnHuang2
OUSTON, Feb. 14 The NASA official in charge of shuttle Columbia's re-entry said today that despite the accumulating signs of trouble aboard the spacecraft as it crossed the southwestern United States, he had remained confident that it would land safely.
The official, LeRoy E. Cain, a veteran NASA flight director, acknowledged at a news conference today that some of the sensor readings showing elevated temperatures in parts of the shuttle's left wing or no readings at all made him nervous. But the realization that things were going badly wrong dawned on him only gradually.
Only when he heard reports of debris falling from the sky in East Texas did he know that the ship was lost.
"At that point we didn't know the details of the breakup," Mr. Cain said. "We didn't know the details of the situation and what it was. All we knew was we had a significant event that was potentially catastrophic."
Even then, he said, he held out hope that the module holding the seven astronauts had managed to withstand the breakup.
Mr. Cain spoke with reporters several hours after NASA released a videotape recorded in Mission Control on the morning of Feb. 1, as Columbia made its fatal re-entry. In the video, flight controllers are seen staring helplessly at their monitors and trying futilely to find the craft by radio or radar after communication with it had ceased.
Mr. Cain asked for more explanation for the rapid series of failures along the shuttle's left wing. Charlie Hobaugh, the capsule communications officer, tried over and over to raise the orbiter on the UHF radio.
Then Phil Engelauf, a senior flight director representing the mission operations directive at Mission Control, received word from the outside world of an unconfirmed report that people had seen what appeared to be the breakup of the shuttle over Texas. No microphone picks up what happened next, but the tape showed him turning to Ellen Ochoa, an astronaut standing to his right, and saying a few words. She shut her eyes and can be seen saying, "Oh, God."
Mr. Cain turned to speak with them and others in the room. He paused for a moment. His shoulders sagged slightly, he rubbed his forehead and his eyes. He pinched his nose and sniffed hard, blinking back tears.
And then he snapped back into his professional role. "Lock the doors," he said, and began to lay out the procedures for disaster recovery and data recording.
NASA released gripping video images today from inside Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center during the final minutes of the shuttle's flight, adding faces to the voices heard on audiotapes released earlier this week.
As the moments passed, one warning after another suggested the disaster to come sensor glitches, loss of tracking data, rapid heat spikes and loss of communications with the shuttle through various channels. Each point of data added clarity to an emerging picture of disaster.
And though the voices of the mission controllers remained steady, their faces and body language showed a marked transition from the cool professionalism to wide-eyed alertness to dread and, finally, tears.
As NASA released the tape, retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., leader of the panel named to investigate the accident, said he planned to expand the nine-member board to include experts in high-altitude aerodynamics and thermal engineering. The formal investigation of the accident was grinding onward.
The board issued its first significant statement on the accident on Thursday, saying that preliminary analysis by NASA engineers had found that the superheated gases that surround the spacecraft as it entered the atmosphere had somehow penetrated the wing or wheel well. That finding alone does not answer how the breach occurred or explain the specific chain of events that led to the shuttle breaking up.
Upon arriving at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., Admiral Gehman said he was confident that the investigators would find the cause of Columbia's destruction. "These accident investigators have solved mysteries with a lot less data than we have," he said.
The part of the investigation that involves examining debris for clues a crucial part of any airline accident inquiry, Admiral Gehman noted is only at the "beginning of the beginning."
But the true beginning came on Feb. 1, in the minutes recorded on the video from Mission Control that NASA released here today. The tapes are made for every flight for archival purposes, with images edited and mixed on the fly, but not altered after the fact.
As the enormous computer monitor showed the progress of the shuttle across the Pacific Ocean, California and Nevada, the cameras moved from face to face throughout the flight control center, focusing most often on the face of Mr. Cain, 39, who has been the flight controller on a dozen previous shuttle missions.
During the briefing today in Houston, Mr. Cain described the morning that had begun as a "a very normal, right down the middle" return to Earth.
Mr. Cain appeared drained, and older than he had in the 13-day-old videotape.
Speaking with the quiet reserve of an engineer, but fighting his emotions, he expressed sorrow for the astronauts' families and praise for his own mission control team.
"I was very proud of the way the team performed on Saturday in the face of the tragic events," he said, his voice breaking. "I remain proud of them in the work they are doing, and the commitment that they show."
Recalling the stream of anomalous readings and loss of sensor data as the shuttle raced across the western United States, Mr. Cain said the indications of trouble only stood out over time. "We did not see a trend and would not see a trend for a few minutes at least," he said.
As the warning signs mounted, however, the danger became clear. "These things as they accumulated, it became clear to me that we had some kind of significant problems," Mr. Cain said.
Even after learning of the falling debris, he said he still hoped at that point that the crew module might be intact, and that recovery teams should look for parachutes and other evidence of escape. He said he prayed for the crew and their families during the momentary pause before ordering his crew to lock the doors to Mission Control, secure all the data and notes and begin procedures for dealing with an emergency. He still held out some hope faith, really that somehow the crew had survived.
During the briefing, Mr. Cain seemed to take issue with the investigative board's statement Thursday about the presence of superheated gas, or plasma, in the wing. He said that there was as yet no proof that there had been a breach in the shuttle's thermal protection system. "I do not think that we're settled on that at all," he said.
No avenues of investigation have been eliminated, Mr. Cain said. "We're going to go basically wherever the data leads us," he said. "There are many, many other possibilities."
Mr. Cain also said investigators were having some success with attempts to "glean some new data" from the final moments of the flight, though he did not elaborate on them.