Skip to comments.Courage (Space Shuttle Columbia)
Posted on 02/16/2003 1:01:23 PM PST by FreedomCalls
Sometimes, even when you are very young, something happens in your life that is so profound, so astonishing and so big that you just know everything has changed and you will never be who you were again. I had one such experience at age 5, and I was to have another eleven years later.
I grew up in Bermuda. Wait, it gets better
My father was a hotel manager, so I grew up in the most perfect corner of Bermuda. I would go to Warwick Academy and sing God Save the Queen in my blazer and school tie. Usually wed take the bus home, but when mom picked us up, wed wriggle into bathing suits in the back seat and go snorkeling for a few hours. This was pretty much every day. And, like just about everyone else at that age, at that time, I had decided that my future would consist of being a railroad engineer, or a fireman, or a cowboy that would be a Daniel Boone, coonskin cap, Winchester rifle and buckskin kind of cowboy, not the garden-variety pretty-boy kind with the chaps and the showy chrome six-shooters. I considered them a little too precious for real work, even at that age.
I didnt know it then, but I would have traded all of that for a father with a nine-to-five job selling insurance, because the price of such a life was a dad who lived his job. Most dads lived their jobs in those days. Its just that mine had a full day of work to do, and then a full night of entertaining as well.
So I was just happy to be spending time with my dad as we sat in the bleachers at Kindley Air Force Base, down at the other end of the island. A two hour wait in the sun is interminable at that age, but finally, six men in blue jumpsuits appeared, and walked down the flight line like robots. People applauded politely. I did too. Didnt seem worth a two-hour wait, though
They climbed into their silver jets with the red, white and blue stripes and the numbers on the tails. I found out later that they were F-100 Super Sabers really glorious airplanes, sleek and muscular. Down came the canopies in unison. Then they started the engines.
They taxied to the end of the runway, took off in a roar, and disappeared out over the turquoise and green reefs. Spectacular! Great show! Not sure it was worth two hours, and that one guy down there wont stop talking
Launched on May25th, 1953 powerful symbol of the American Indian never missed a show due to maintenance problems, blah blah blah...
Hey, thought the five-year-old, the jets are gone, shows over, lets get out of the heat...
But behind my back were six of Americas most powerful fighter aircraft and the best pilots on the planet, not a hundred feet above the water and racing toward the rear of our bleachers at nearly seven hundred miles an hour just under the speed of sound. And I mean just under.
So when I looked down at this man in the blue jumpsuit, I couldnt hear them coming, because they were only a few feet behind their own roar. And when he said, Ladies and Gentlemen, the United States Air Force--- something caught my eye at what seemed like a few feet above my head. I saw a blur of silver and red, white and blue, and thats about all I had time for, because the man shouted into his microphone the word ---THUNDERBIRDS!" and thats when the sound hit.
And that was about all she wrote for little Billy. I was pretty much done after that.
Ive thought a lot about courage in the last few years. And what Ive come to realize is that behind courage is a greater emotion still, and that emotion, not surprisingly, is love.
Think about it. Think of the infantryman who throws himself onto a hand grenade. Perhaps love of country brought him to that time and place. Certainly he loved his family, his wife and children. And more than that, even, he loved his own life, his chance to watch his sons grow into honorable manhood, to give his daughter away in a small church on a Sunday morning. All of this love may have given him the courage to come to the place where he would face that grenade, but it was his love of his buddies that overcame all of that in that one instant where the heart rules the mind and courage rises unbidden from its mysterious, deep harbor.
Actions like these, time and time again, leave me speechless and dumbfounded. And yet they are commonplace in times of great peril. I have sat in silent awe of the firemen that rushed into those buildings and of all the firemen, everywhere, that do it every day. I think of passengers on an airliner who would, in that one moment of desperate courage, decide on the spot to fight hardened murderers who had spiritually and psychologically prepared themselves for years, to advance on their slashing box cutters, to break into the cockpit and push those controls forward, to stop the men from righting the plane, kicking and biting and punching as the ground filled the windows. I think of that kind of courage and am struck mute at the love those people bore for the rest of us. I gape in awe, like I did that day when I was a little boy, at the kind of society that can generate that common courage.
And in this imperfect, flawed nation of ours, perhaps more than anywhere else on earth, I think about the courage it takes to be poor, to face that sickening knot of worry and despair that comes with not having the money to pay your bills. For there is no more steady and enduring courage than that of a poor family, especially a single parent, who fights a never-ending battle of brutal hours at miserable pay, of perennially unrealized dreams, and of the desperate, numb agony of disappointed children. For people like that, who force themselves to work two jobs while we sleep, to avoid the temptations of crime and dependency while surrounded by luxury and wealth the likes of which man has never known well, that is dogged courage of a sublime nature that passes all understanding.
If courage is love coming to the rescue, then what do we make of people who willingly put themselves in great danger? How are astronauts any different than bungee jumpers or other thrill seekers? Are men and women like that simply adrenaline junkies, people who do not feel really alive unless they face danger and death at point-blank range? Do they indeed flirt with death? Because if they do, then that is not courage but rather a dark and filthy addiction. What kind of people do these things, and why?
If we really want to get to the heart and truth of the matter, we must turn once again to Hollywood for they, as usual, have gotten it absolutely, totally wrong.
You would think a fellow like me jumpsuit, jaunty pose, shades would love a movie like Top Gun. Watching those guys on the carrier deck, I did indeed love the first three minutes right up until the moment the first person started speaking.
As is typical for so many who write about the military, Hollywood looks at courage and sees only bravado. Bravado is to real courage as a slick personality is to genuine character.
You do not earn the privilege of flying these amazing machines because of lightning-fast reflexes or a cocky smile, or even a best-who-ever-lived belief in your own ability. Everyone who applies has these in spades. You get to fly jets, or Space Shuttles, because you have the discipline to study phone book after phone book of manuals and procedures. It is unglamorous, tedious, vexing work. There are armies of young men and women willing to do this, who fling themselves into jungles of facts and data for the chance to sit in that chair and face death on a daily basis.
I know this because I was one of them. And then, eleven years after six red, white and blue Super Sabers changed my life, after building every Mercury, Gemini and Apollo model in the known universe, after memorizing the details of every aircraft in the US and Soviet inventory, after getting a job at the Miami Space Transit Planetarium at age 13, after correcting the tour bus guides at the Kennedy Space Center (who should have shot me into space and left me there), after leaving any hope of a social life at the altar of after-school physics classes, after lining up letters to Senators and enduring High School Counselors who told me 61 would make a pretty good basketball player, after all this and more than you can imagine, I walked out of the preliminary medical exam for the United States Air Force Academy with an optical prescription for the 20/25 vision in my left eye (20/10 in my right being irrelevant) and the inescapable reality that someone else was going to command the first Mars Mission.
That was a hard thing to do to a seventeen year old, and to this day I look at our military pilots and I am ashamed of myself. I know theres no reason or logic to it; its just how I feel. Still. To this day.
The Space Shuttle is, without question, the most complex machine ever created. You look at her and see an airplane. Look deeper.
Look at her bones; her wing spars, her bulkheads and decks. Look at her delicate hydraulic blood vessels, her electrical nervous system, her computer brains and inner ear, her exquisite balancing organs. Look at the warm cocoon behind her nose, a little piece of Planet Earth set in a fortress against the vacuum and bitter cold of space. Think of her communications suite, her inertial guidance systems, her orbital maneuvering thrusters, her elevons and landing gear and rudder. Picture the slightest pressure on a man or womans wrist sending her rolling or pitching to a fraction of a degree. Think of her eyes, her windows windows that can hold back 2000 degree-hot plasma. Think of her revolutionary, reusable rocket motors. Think of her thermal tiles, so efficient at dissipating heat that you can hold a white-hot tile in the palm of your hand. Think of the thousands of them that make up her skin, each unique every one.
We dont call industrial-sized air conditioning units she. Well, most of us dont anyway. We dont refer to buildings this way very often, or to generators or dumpsters.
But vehicles, they are different somehow. If you do not believe it is possible to love an inanimate object, then you do not know too many teenage boys and their first cars. Ships have always been she. Airplanes, too. And I dont think this is so hard to figure out, because there is something about a machine that takes us places, something alive and magical. Many foreign observers of America simply cannot comprehend our love of automobiles, but that is because they have never had to face crossing Texas. There is a right of passage for everyone in the US, and that is your first teenage road trip. And no matter what kind of piece of shit you may be driving when you take that trip, that machine is serving you up pure, unrefined freedom and its so delirious and liberating that it makes your head spin, and carves the songs you heard during those glorious hours into that part of your brain that makes you cry when you hear them again twenty and forty and sixty years later.
A guy on a Harley knows real freedom in the single, left and right direction of the highway. Sailors know it in two dimensions, the ability to point the bow anywhere on the compass and follow it, come what may.
And then there are those of us who have worked and studied and trained like hell so that we may know freedom in all three dimensions. Now a lot of people think this makes pilots a little arrogant and aloof. Not so. The average pilot, despite the sometimes swaggering exterior, is very much capable of such feelings as love, affection, intimacy and caring. Its just that these feelings don't involve anyone else.
I knew, when I was sitting in those bleachers all those years ago, that those red, white and blue jets were alive. I always see airplanes that way. They live. They are here to set us free. And the most docile and sweet-natured of them can only just barely kill us.
Like most every pilot I know, I read everything I can about other people exactly like me who have managed to kill themselves in an airplane. Our crusty old flight instructors always said to us new pilots, Try to learn from the mistakes of others, son you wont live long enough to make them all yourself.
Again, like most every pilot I know, I have lost friends to the airplanes I so deeply love. No one very close yet, but thats just a matter of time. Its going to happen. When a friend dies, you lose a friend; when you die, you lose all your friends. We say things like this when we start talking about our dead comrades. We say it to deflect the reality of it, of course, but what we really do is dig into the details of every fatal accident. Ah, see I wouldnt have done THAT. You feel better. Some of the things pilots do to get themselves killed are truly and staggeringly stupid, so much so you really do tend to look at it as natural selection. But if were honest, we often see ourselves in the wreckage, catch a glimpse of something we almost did or might have done, or did, in fact, survive.
Like every pilot I know, I read these accident reports relentlessly, and for the same reason: to save myself from making that same mistake. And it works, too. And it does something more: it makes you face the possibility, the very idea of dying. Realistically and openly. You are making a trade with death Ill deal with the horror in exchange for the wisdom.
I like to fly because it combines intelligence, ingenuity, passion, skill, discipline and guts. We do not flirt with danger. We try to get as far away from danger as we can. We look at the death of our friends and colleagues right in the eye so we know what it looks like when it comes for us. This is not a love or a fear of dying. This is confronting the fact that death is in fact real, and by doing so, by facing that, you do, indeed, develop courage.
Courage is not the absence of fear. It is taking action in the face of fear.
And I know courage is the stern face of love because I love to fly more than I fear being killed while flying. I do everything I possibly can to reduce the risks, knowing I can never eliminate them all. There comes a time when I can honestly tell myself Ive been as careful as I know how to be, and then, and only then, is the time to strap in. Ive made the risks and the fear as small as I can. The joy stays as large as it ever was.
One day, I was on a solo flight in a small, single-seat sailplane a glider about the size of a bathtub, with long, thin, very efficient wings.
Its usually dry in the Mojave desert, but this was still early spring, and the San Gabriel Mountains were covered in snow. Wind hitting the mountains has nowhere to go but up, and so thats where I was 80 knots, plenty of speed to get out of trouble and perhaps two wingspans away from the trees. I was so close I could see squirrel tracks in the snow. Just thinking about a turn was all it took, and I ran the contours of those mountains certain that I would never have to come down.
And then I saw something I have never seen before or since. Off my left wing, between me and the mountains, moist air was being pushed up so fast that it was condensing, turning into cloud before my eyes. It was like an inverted waterfall of smoke, and there I was, dipping a wing into it. The power of all that lift, the force and the speed of it, all that free energy and somehow, we hairless, gibbering, bickering monkeys managed to figure out a way to grab it and ride it. I remember thinking, Four billion years of struggle and evolution put me in this seat right now. Billions of dead people spent their lives dreaming of what this must be like.
And as I looked away from that upward rushing waterfall of air, I saw ahead of me another sight I had never seen before or since, for the sun was setting below a cloud layer, yet above a lower one, and there we were, just me and Shiny McShine caught in an envelope of purple and gold glory that would make the most heavenly Hallmark card look like something done on an Etch-A-Sketch.
And I will never forget this feeling: I knew, right then, as if I had been hit between the eyes with a diamond bullet, that I no longer cared about dying. I had seen and done something that only the smallest handful of us have ever experienced, sailed a silent ship through a place that cannot be described or imagined. I didnt care if the wings came off. I didnt care if I got pushed through the grille of an oncoming truck on the way home down murderous highway 138. It just didnt matter to me anymore. I had done this. Anything that followed in this life was gravy, and I knew it as surely as if the thought had been with me all my life.
I wouldnt have traded that moment for the moon.
Of course, the risks we private pilots face pales in comparison to our military fliers, and is absolutely nothing compared to that met eye-to-eye by men and women like Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Dave Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Mike Anderson, and Ilan Ramon; nor does it require the courage and skill of Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Ron McNair, El Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis or Judy Resnik. These are the last crews of Columbia, and Challenger before her, buried with their ships in the skies over Florida and Texas. But many, many others have taken that walk in those spacesuits, smiling and waving as they pass the cameras on their way to their seats atop 2 million pounds of explosives, and they took exactly the same risks and bore them with the same courage. It is fitting that we remember the names of those lost with their ships, but not fitting at all that most of us cannot name a single living crewmember, some of whom have taken that walk four or five times.
Story Musgrave was one of those people. He described the Space Shuttle as "a beautiful butterfly that's bolted to a bullet."
Heres what he meant:
Your chairs are facing the sky as you crawl into the Orbiter. You can barely move anyway in your orange pressure suits thank god for the technicians. They literally ratchet the five-point harness across your chest and legs. On a full flight, its four on the flight deck: Pilot and Mission Commander on the controls up front. Two behind him, three on the deck below.
You sit for hours like this minimum of three hours or so, often longer. There is a lot to think about, and I have no doubt that for the last 13 years or so not one of them has been able to avoid seeing in their minds eye that horrible forked smoke trail and raining, smoldering debris. No one talks about this. No one has to. Theres a lot of smiling and nodding, but the chatter is kept to a minimum since the intercom is dominated by call-outs from launch control to the crew, most often the Mission Commander and Pilot.
Theres a lot of built-in holds, chances to catch up and work minor, last minute problems. At the T-21 hold, the Flight Director polls the Launch Control Team to confirm we are go for launch. This is a solemn moment. It is, in essence, the passing of a cup of responsibility. Everybody takes a sip. Its a little less dramatic than in the Apollo days (Telemetry? GO! Cap COM? GO! Booster? GO FLIGHT!), but its still where we sign the check.
They pick up the countdown. Theres another built-in hold at T-9 minutes. Any one of these can, and very often does, result in catching one or more of the one million components falling out of nominal status. Thats either more delay strapped into your chair, or a trip home for the night, or the week, or the month.
Software is running the countdown from this point forward, but anyone at any console can stop the launch if they are not happy.
T minus 30 seconds. The GLS auto system takes over now, checking each system hundreds of times a second. The crew hears everything. Pilot and Mission Commander are busy as hell, but the other five are essentially passengers, and now they are scared. Now they are calling all of their courage, reasoning with themselves. Smiling at each other. That helps a lot. That and The Nod. The Nod is untranslatable. It means, very roughly, that I know what you went through to sit here with me, and you know the same about me. Its not something you and I can do. This is something reserved for the very best people we have as a species. That inner voice, the one we cultivate and nurture through untold hours of training and simulation, whispers to us, pushing out the fear: Those controllers are the best there are. The engineers too. The technicians. All of them. We dont know if they can keep us safe but we know theyve done their best, and thats as good as it gets.
Ten, nine, eight
Okay, head back. Here we go. On the flight deck, some orange gantry out the left window everything else is blue sky. A butterfly bolted to a bullet.
At T-6 seconds, fire-hoses of fuel and liquid oxygen begin to flow to the three main engines at the back of the Shuttle. They only give us about a quarter of the thrust well need to get off the pad. But theyre on fire now, pushing the Orbiter forward, giving the crew the sickening feeling that the ship is falling over. The vanes constrict and focus the thrust were going to need it all now. Everything shes got.
Come on, baby. Come on.
The entire shuttle assembly rocks back into place now, and even during these last five seconds, computers can catch a stray reading and shut it all down
Three, two, one
SRB ignition. The two flanking Solid Rocket Boosters ignite, pitching more than a million pounds more thrust onto the orange External Tank, the bullet that the butterfly rides into orbit.
And now youre headed for space, and theres nothing you can do to stop it.
The SRBs kick in, and that is what it is, a hammer to the back. You were scared before; youre terrified now. The SRBs are horrible, theyre pigs, they scrape and hiss and rattle and they feel like they will shake that ship to pieces. Look at the cockpit cameras during launch, and youll see the crew battered like theyre taking speed bumps at two hundred miles an hour. Everyone hates and fears the SRBs; youll never relax while theyre burning.
15 seconds in and youre clear the tower. The Shuttle rolls 90 degrees left, fast. Youre not only on your back now, youre tipping over upside-down and its getting worse as you angle out over the Atlantic.
A few miles away stand the smartest men and women the human race has ever produced, and they are watching over you like a hawk. Theres just so goddam little they can do for you now. Theyve already done everything they can and theyre as much a passenger as you are.
You are probably to scared to think about it, and it is CERTAINLY too loud to hear, but further away, thousands and thousands more watched the glare as the SRBs lit. The Shuttle rolls off the pad in complete silence at that distance. Its surreal. Theres nothing to compare it to. People are usually kind of quiet.
Then the sound hits you: you feel it in your chest more than hear it, the sound of millions of pieces of thick canvas being torn all at once. And then a funny thing happens, because youre surrounded by people but suddenly youre all alone out there sunburn forgotten, mosquitoes a memory from a past life. Youre ten or fifteen or twenty miles away, but its just you and the white butterfly now, thats all there is. Youre crying and you dont know it, you're screaming but you cant hear it, youre jumping up and down, and its every time a Gator wide receiver ever beat a Florida State defensive end and hes just pulling away and aint nothin gonna stop him now hes going all the way.
Go, baby! Go! GO! Go you son of a bitch! Yeah, they say she burns liquid hydrogen and LOX, but thats bullshit. Its pure love that keeps that ship in the sky.
And she is going. Shes going like a bat out of hell. And every traffic jam and dental appointment and blind date and income tax form is suddenly worth it to be able to see this with your own eyes, to live through a time like this Its a pillar of fire and a pillar of smoke, but its not God coming down to speak to us, its us going up to have a word with Him. Good GOD look at her go!
40 seconds. The mains throttle back. Nothing stops the goddam solids: they keep roaring and hissing and knocking loose your fillings if your dumb enough or human enough to keep your teeth clenched. Were at Max Q, and the Shuttle is experiencing the highest aerodynamic loads it can bear. We keep getting faster, but the air starts to thin. This is as hard as the air can push back, and if we do it at full speed well be blown to pieces.
Fifty years ago it took all the Right Stuff we had in the box to push a tiny orange glider level through the sound barrier. Now we do it in less than a minute, straight up, from a standing start, with a spacecraft the size of a ten story building weighing a few million pounds. Ka-BOOOM! Mach 1, baby, and you aint seen nothin yet!
A little more than a minute and most of the atmosphere is behind us. Main engines back up to 104%
"Challenger GO at throttle-up "
Thats as far as Challenger got that cold January morning. 73 seconds. End of story.
Roger Columbia, we copy you go at throttle-up
I know how they must have felt at 2:02 a kick and a pop, and all of a sudden, the ride turns to pure velvet as the SRBs fall away. I know one of them must have looked at another and smiled. Were safe now.
Well, safer. Now a complete engine failure could result in a return glide to Kennedy. Forget all that nonsense about parachutes and escape poles. At mach 5 and climbing the air is as hard as concrete.
2:32 weve been in the air for two and a half minutes, and we are high and fast enough now to glide to Africa.
4:20 Two engine ATO if we lose a main engine now, the other two will get us to orbit. We can sort things out up there.
7:00 One engine Abort to Orbit. Even better. Were gonna make it.
7 minutes, 45 seconds. MECO. Main Engine Cut Off. Welcome to by-God outer space! Everything is strapped down except your arms. They float in front of you like they do at the top of a roller coaster. Only this one is going to last for two weeks. Youre weightless.
A few moments later the External Tank falls away, headed for the Indian Ocean. That funny dark spot is where some of the insulating foam came off during launch. Its happened before. Probably nothing to worry about
Back during the Apollo days, before we forgot that we could accomplish anything we set our minds to, the Space Shuttle was going to be a different bird indeed. Not a butterfly strapped to a bullet at all, but more a hawk on the back of an eagle.
No SRBs, no O-rings, no foam installation, no External Tank falling away into the ocean half a world away. No, the original plans for the Shuttle called for something that would have looked a bit like those pictures youve seen of the Orbiter riding on the back of a 747, as its moved from Edwards Air Force Base back to Florida.
Almost all of the weight lifting off that pad is fuel. Why? Because it takes insane amounts of thrust to go straight up. The engines on a 747 dont lift us into the air the wings do that. All the engines do is keep the aircraft moving forward fast enough for lift to develop, and it takes a lot less energy to go forward than it does to go up.
In the original design, an orbiter sat on the back of a manned, winged transport. The shuttle would take off from a runway any major airport would do climb to about 100,000 feet using jet engines, and let aerodynamics do the heavy lifting just as it does on a jumbo jet today. Then, already moving at several times the speed of sound and with 95% of the atmosphere below it, the Orbiter would separate and using a scramjet supersonic ramjet claw for more speed and altitude until there was practically no air left at all. The front of the scramjet would close, making it into a rocket, and liquid oxygen would be added to the fuel. Although you wouldnt need too much you were most of the way there already.
This was an elegant, reliable and very safe way to get to orbit. Once built, it would have gotten the cost of going into space down to rates that approached flying the Concorde. But to build it was expensive, and after Apollo 11, we had bigger fish to fry.
No one has been able to tell me what those fish were.
Anyway, never time or money to do things right, but always the time and money to do them over. And over.
Solid Rocket Boosters and foam-covered External Tanks were engineering sleight-of-hand tricks to get us to space on far less money than we needed to do it right. It was like making a lunar lander out of old boilers and playground equipment. To the extent that the Shuttle has flown 111 out 113 missions successfully is a testament to the skill and dedication of NASAs engineers and administrators, and not, Im afraid, to the vision or commitment of the Congress, the President or the American People.
Look at the pictures of Columbia after a landing at Kennedy, and you are struck by just how dirty she was by the time of her last mission. Well, she was 22 years old thats old for aluminum and steel thats been shaken and burned and twisted and rattled, freezing on one side and boiling on the other during her weeks and weeks in the unforgiving vacuum a few miles above us. But it looks as though Columbia herself never failed her crew. Challenger certainly did not. It looks like components of the External Tank and SRBs did both Orbiters fatal harm. These ships were destroyed, and their crews perished, because of the various band-aids and cost-cutting work-arounds we applied to what was once a magnificent design. NASA was forced to do this to maintain our tenuous status as a spacefaring species, and I applaud and admire them for that ingenuity and courage. For all her design short-cuts, I would fly the Shuttle tomorrow. Please let me fly the Shuttle tomorrow.
We live in interesting times. We face an adversary so mentally shackled, so consumed with hatred and revenge, that their only weapon is Terror.
They want, they need us to be afraid. And some of us are. News reporters, in particular, seem to have bones made of margarine and I suspect their blood looks as pink and watery as watermelon juice. They daily tell us how afraid we are. What theyre really telling us is how afraid they are.
We have -- we here today have lived our lives more free of fear than any humans in history. No other generation comes even close. We have conquered the diseases that have taken our children from us, slain hunger to the point where the number one health risk to poor Americans is obesity. We have a stable government, a functioning society, and teams of highly trained and magnificently skilled rescuers only three button-pushes away. Fear is not something modern Americans have had to face very often.
And when we are afraid, we seem to fear the most unlikely things: plane crashes and terrorist attacks. Nothing baffles me more than listening to a 340 pound smoker, a person who will drive drunk, without seatbelts, talking about how they are going to die in a commercial jetliner.
Terrorists worry me, but they dont frighten me. The worse thing they can do is kill me, and despite my best efforts to the contrary, thats going to happen regardless of what they may scheme and fantasize about.
Terrorism can never, never destroy this nation. They may kill thousands of us, perhaps even take one of our cities cities they could never build, filled with people they can never be. Perhaps it will be my city. Perhaps it will be me. But if they do, life will go on. Some things are bigger and more important than our own lives. America can survive the loss of a city. America can survive the loss of all her cities. Because our image and idea of America lives in our hearts, and as long as there are Americans alive in the world, America will survive.
But there are people that do scare me people that scare me very badly indeed, because these people have the power to kill this idea we call America.
We have turned our childrens minds over to certain people who are so bitter and angry, so hateful of the country that gave them birth and safety, that their poison now fills our college campuses and has overrun entire communities. These are not loyal dissenters who rightfully question the policies of our nation, but small and diseased people who cannot understand why their fantasy ideologies are never in vogue, who can see nothing noble or magnificent on their foggy and dim and very close inner horizons. People whose anger and envy have driven them to turn all virtue into an ironic smirk, people who react to strength and morality with the revulsion born of a lifetime of failure and dark plans for revenge on the happy, the confident and the self-reliant.
I fear these people. I hate them. I hate them because they can kill our confidence, corrode our will, poison our history and make us believe we are the base, savage and dismal society they see through their cataracts of failure. These people can kill America. And they are determined to do it if we let them. And the one thing they mock and spit on, the one trait they despise above all others, is the physical and moral courage that they have never known, and that is the leaden nugget of their self-hatred.
There are people Americans who would turn this into the Land of the Guilty and the Home of the Terrified. We cannot let them do this. We simply can not.
The scales of Joy and Fear somehow balance. On its final mission, the Challenger Seven never got to space, and her crew died not long after she cleared the pad and climbed into memory.
But the crew of Columbia had a much larger helping of joy sixteen days in orbit, almost a hundred sunrises and sunsets, playing weightless choo-choo trains through narrow tunnels and tweaking gravitys tail good and long and hard and the Columbia Seven would be destined to pay for that by several minutes of knowing that they were about to die.
As they strapped themselves in for the long, quiet ride home, they had the satisfaction of a job so well done that NASA was calling it the textbook mission.
Rick Husband took his six crewmembers rock climbing during their years of training. He wanted to bond them into more than a crew. He did: he made them into a family. Theres a picture of them in shorts and sunglasses, atop that mountain, admiring the view. They look like theyd known each other since grade school.
Ill bet they talked about that day as they pulled down their visors, and Willie McCool pitched the Orbiter on its back for the de-orbit burn. They talked about who was waiting for them, where they would go, what they would have for dinner.
As Columbia began to press against the first thin wisps of air, a little hint of gravity, a little push at the small of their backs must have felt strange after sixteen days of weightlessness. But it was time to go home. And like all coworkers facing the end of a close assignment and weeks and months of hard work together, I know they planned to get together over the years. I know Laurel and Mike were talking about their families, Dave and Kalpana already grinning about being the old salts next time and how much they would miss this team, this family, in all of their future rides on the bullet. Ilan Ramon must have invited them all to his house in Israel, perhaps a few years from now when things had settled down a little. Its beautiful there. I know that they meant it too, that these were not idle platitudes but real offers from people who knew they would be friends for the rest of their lives.
Perhaps ten minutes before eight am on Saturday morning, Rick Husband and Willie McCool started to pay attention to the data coming from the left wing sensors. It was 30 degrees warmer than normal in the left wheel well. Not much, considering the 2-3000 degrees on the leading edge of their wings and nose, but something to pay attention to. Anomalies are never good. There are no pleasant surprises in the flying business.
By 7:55 things were looking worse a lot worse. The readings from the heat sensors in the left wing started to rise, and then drop to zero. They were failing, in a pattern expanding away from the left wheel well. Tire pressures were way high on the left side, and then those sensors failed too.
Sensors fail all the time. But this was different. This was a pattern, and it was spreading. I dont know the words he used, but I can hear the tone perfectly in my head, because its exactly the same tone Ive heard dozens of times on cockpit voice recorders. Its concern. Alarm, even. But its cool. Disciplined.
All right, weve got a problem here...
The Pilot and Mission Commander probably never exchanged the knowing look that wed see in the movie. They were too busy working the problem. But in the two seats behind them, and the three below, those five brave passengers looked at each other and now the smiles and the grins were gone.
Something was wrong with Columbias left wing. The air that should be slipping over and under her like water off the back of a duck had found something to hold on to: perhaps some missing tiles, perhaps a dent, or a micrometeorite hit we just dont know. But 3000 degree ionized air was pushing into that wing, and heat sensors were winking out one by one because they were being burned through by gas far hotter and sharper than that at the end of a blowtorch.
Guys, were in real trouble here.
The Commander would have told them. I have no doubt of this at all. You love and respect those people, people who have shown courage the likes of which we will never know. These are not babies, not shrieking, hysterical, self-centered adults either. These are astronauts. They deserve to know.
The air pushing backward and into that left wing started to yaw the nose of the orbiter to the left. This cannot be allowed to happen the ship will disintegrate if she doesnt come in at exactly the right angle. So the computers flying Columbia commanded the aircraft to roll right, to bring that left wing forward using the rudder and elevons, the controls on the wing and tail that made Columbia an airplane and not merely a space capsule.
It wasnt working. Columbia still pulled hard to the left, so hard that the computers fired the attitude control rockets on the nose to try and force it back into the relative wind. When that happened, when they heard the roar of those rockets firing in a last desperate effort to keep that ship intact, and when the rockets fired again, and kept firing, Rick Husband and Willie McCool must have known that they were not going home that day.
Guys, its Rick. I dont think were gonna make it.
And I know what courage did for these people. I know they looked at each other and nodded, and whether they actually said goodbye I know it was in their eyes. We know it. We know. We saw it on the deck of the Titanic, in the aisles on United Flight 93. On some level, they had all said goodbye to their families and their lives before they walked through that circular hatch, right below the word COLUMBIA.
When PSA Flight 182 collided with a small plane over San Diego in 1978, and dove straight into the ground trailing fire from the wing, the last words on the Cockpit Voice Recorder was a calm, level, Ma, I love you.
And in that last second, there may just have been enough time, as that bulkhead wall opened into golden and purple light, to smile and think, It was worth it. It was a great ride. I wouldnt have traded this for the m
Buildings shook in Texas. Columbia was coming home.
Bill Whittle knows.
I thought I might share a bit from a mission control room perspective.
At night the control room is quiet and empty. There are only three of us working tonight and duties frequently require the other two people to work in other areas. So for a majority of the time I am alone in a darkened control room lit only by the various displays from the computers and the two large wall displays at the end of the room. The only noise is the muted whispers of the numerous fans that keep the computers cool. As I sit here tonight and look around, I see lots of displays scrolling various data, graphs, and numbers. The big screens at the end of the room are typical for most satellite control rooms. One of the screens display a big map of the world with our orbits overlaid on top, and the other is a three dimensional display of the satellite with the earth and stars in the background.
In the solitude and quite, if I strain really hard I can almost hear voices, faint echoes from the past, main engine sequence start, thats one small step, go at throttle up, we have liftoff whispering their soft messages of the past to my very soul.
My mind keeps drifting back to the early hectic days of the space program. There was a bustle and flurry of activity across this entire nation as we tried to do what has never been done in the entire history of all mankind. My little control room is the end result of that monumental effort. I am reminded of a quote; "If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants."--Sir Isaac Newton.
Over the years the flavor/feel of the control room has changed also. When I first started, we were using the original NASA consoles with the black and white monitors, lit push buttons, and dials/meters in the panels. There also was quite a cadre' of personnel to get the job done. We had "crews" (a team of engineers) that were larger than all of the operations people here combined. All of those consoles have long been replaced. They now sit forlorn in some corner of a junkyard their sides rusting and their speakers quiet. Now a control room does not look much different than a very fancy college computer science lab. Instead of a crew of 15 or so, we now can do it with 2 (1 in a pinch).
I do miss those bustling days and flurries of paper. We had strip charts running, teletypes chattering, blinking lights and alarm bells on both the consoles and printers. Now that is what a control room should look like! Impresses the hell out of people who come in on a tour. Now a days It's just scrolling data on a workstation. When people come in for a tour, the first words that get uttered are "this is it?"
I was in a mission control room monitoring the Challenger launch. My heart still hurts from that day. Even though I was home during Columbia accident, it hit just as deeply.