Working as a Team: Columbia’s Final Flight (Part 2)

Columbia roars into orbit for the 28th and final time on 16 January 2003. Photo Credit: NASA
Columbia roars into orbit for the 28th and final time on 16 January 2003. Photo Credit: NASA

“We’ve had a Go for Auto Sequence Start. Columbia’s on-board computers have primary control of all the vehicle’s critical functions … ”

More than two decades since her first flight, Columbia, the oldest orbiter in NASA’s fleet of space shuttles, was ready for her 28th voyage on the morning of 16 January 2003. She would be carrying a crew of seven—Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Mike Anderson, Dave Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, and Israeli payload specialist Ilan Ramon—into orbit for 16 days to perform dozens of scientific experiments in the Spacehab Research Double Module and aboard the Freestar pallet. The mission had been delayed for more than a year, due to difficulties endured during a lengthy process to upgrade Columbia, then cracked metal liners across the fleet in the summer of 2002. Now, at long last, STS-107 sat motionless on Pad 39A, attached to her bulbous External Tank and twin Solid Rocket Boosters, primed and ready to go. The astronauts had closed and locked their visors. A little more than two minutes ago, Willie McCool had reached over from the pilot’s seat and activated Columbia’s Auxiliary Power Units. Their ship now had hydraulic muscle.

“T-20 seconds and counting … ”

Sitting in the commander’s seat was Rick Douglas Husband, an Air Force colonel and veteran of one previous shuttle mission. Born in Amarillo, Texas, on 12 July 1957, he graduated from high school in his hometown, earned his private pilot’s license, and entered Texas Tech University to study mechanical engineering. Since earliest childhood, Husband had been fascinated with the idea of someday becoming an astronaut, and his widow, Evelyn, in her book, High Calling, noted that he explained this to her at one of their first dates. Upon receipt of his degree in 1980, he entered the Air Force and underwent flight training at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma. Husband subsequently flew F-4 fighters and by the end of 1985 was serving as an instructor pilot and academic instructor at George Air Force Base in California. Two years later, his astronaut dream took another step forward when he was selected for the famed Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California, and upon graduation he flew the F-4 and all five versions of the F-15, working specifically on the latter’s Pratt & Whitney F100-P2-229 increased performance engine. A master’s degree followed and in mid-1992 Husband arrived at the Aircraft and Armament Evaluation Establishment at Boscombe Down, England, as an exchange pilot with the Royal Air Force, test flying several aircraft and serving as project pilot of the Tornado GR1 and GR4. Selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate in December 1994, he first flew as pilot on STS-96—the first International Space Station docking mission—in mid-1999.

“ … 15 seconds … ”

Rick Husband leads his crew out of the Operations & Checkout Building on the morning of 16 January 2003, bound for the Astrovan and Pad 39A. Photo Credit: NASA
Rick Husband leads his crew out of the Operations & Checkout Building on the morning of 16 January 2003, bound for the Astrovan and Pad 39A. Photo Credit: NASA

Seated to Husband’s right side on Columbia’s flight deck was Navy commander William Cameron McCool, the pilot of STS-107. He came from San Diego, Calif., where he was born on 23 September 1961, the son of a Marine and naval aviator father. With such a background, it was always obvious that McCool would follow a naval career. After completing high school in Lubbock, Texas, he entered the Naval Academy and earned his degree in applied science in 1983, followed by a master’s credential in computer science from the Naval Postgraduate School in 1985. After initial flight training, McCool was assigned to Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 129 at Whidbey Island, Wash., for the EA-6B Prowler. “The military and NASA are a lot alike when you talk about working together as a team,” he said in a pre-flight interview. “We advocated crew co-ordination and working together as a crew. NASA does the same exact thing.” During this period, he completed two overseas deployments aboard the USS Coral Sea to the Mediterranean region and was designated a wing-qualified landing signal officer. Selection for Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Md., followed shortly thereafter, and McCool’s subsequent duties included working on airframe fatigue life studies, numerous avionic upgrades, and, of course, flight testing of the Prowler. He was an administrative officer aboard the USS Enterprise when he was selected by NASA in April 1996.

“ … eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven … ”

At ten seconds, a flurry of sparks swirled beneath the dark bells of Columbia’s three engines, as hydrogen burn igniters fired to dissipate lingering quantities of the unburnt gas, ahead of Main Engine Start. The astronauts braced themselves for the immense push of engine ignition. Seated behind and between Rick Husband and Willie McCool was Kalpana Chawla, the flight engineer, who was making her second shuttle mission. Chawla had been the first Indian-American woman to be chosen for astronaut training in December 1994. She came from Karnal, in the state of Haryana, on 1 July 1961, and completed high school and received an aeronautical engineering degree from the Punjab Engineering College, before moving to the United States. Chawla earned her master’s degree from the University of Texas in 1984 and a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado in 1988. Her NASA career began after receipt of her doctorate, and she spent several years working at the Ames Research Center on powered-lift computational fluid dynamics, simulating complex airflow around aircraft such as the Harrier. In 1993, she joined Overset Methods, Inc., working on a research team to implement techniques for aerodynamic optimization. In December of the following year, she was selected as an astronaut candidate. Her first flight was aboard STS-87 in late 1997. “Aircraft design,” she said in one of her last interviews, “was really the thing I wanted to pursue. If people asked me what I wanted to do [in college], I would say ‘I want to be a flight engineer.’” On STS-107, she would be just that, for the position of flight engineer on the Shuttle—working with Husband and McCool to continuously monitor hundreds of displays and instruments during the most dynamic phases of flight—was one of the most demanding roles of the whole crew.

Kalpana Chawla, the flight engineer on STS-107, pictured during an emergency bailout training exercise in November 2002. Photo Credit: NASA
Kalpana Chawla, the flight engineer on STS-107, pictured during an emergency bailout training exercise in November 2002. Photo Credit: NASA

“ … We have a Go for Main Engine Start … ”

All at once, the four astronauts on the flight deck and their three comrades on the darkened middeck felt a huge rush and a gigantic outpouring of sheer power as turbopumps awoke, liquid oxygen and hydrogen flooded into the combustion chambers of Columbia’s main engines, and they roared to life for what would be the final time. Such was their power that they actually shifted the orbiter slightly “upwards” on the External Tank struts, in a phenomenon known as “the twang,” before settling ahead of the ignition of the twin Solid Rocket Boosters at T-zero. Seated shoulder-to-shoulder with Kalpana Chawla, and directly behind Willie McCool, the muscles of rookie astronaut David McDowell Brown tensed. The Navy captain and flight surgeon was making his first mission. Born in Arlington, Va., on 16 April 1956, Brown attended high school in his hometown and gained a degree in biology from the College of William and Mary and a medical doctorate from Eastern Virginia Medical School, then joined the Navy. He trained as a flight surgeon and in 1984 became the Director of Medical Services at the Navy Branch Hospital in Adak, Alaska. He subsequently deployed to the western Pacific aboard the USS Carl Vinson and in 1988 became the only flight surgeon for ten years to be selected for pilot training. “I pursued things that I was interested in,” he said in one of his final interviews. “I don’t think I was afraid of working hard and went down a path that I thought would be really challenging, and lo and behold, this is where it ended up!” Designated a Naval Aviator two years later (and ranking No. 1 in his class), Brown flew the A-6E aircraft, served as a Strike Leader Attack Training Syllabus Instructor and Contingency Cell Planning Officer, and qualified in the F-18. By 1995, the year before his selection by NASA, he was serving as flight surgeon at the Naval Test Pilot School in “Pax River,” Md.

“ … three, two, one … ”

By now, the three blazing engines were at near-full power; their translucent orange plumes replaced by a trio of dancing Mach diamonds. If the four astronauts on Columbia’s flight deck, with its six wrap-around front windows and two overhead windows, had a sense of seeing the enormity of the controlled explosion that was going on around them, their three crewmates on the middeck had no such luxury. They could rely only upon the feelings in their bodies and the sounds. Of those three, only payload commander Michael Phillip Anderson—Air Force lieutenant-colonel and physicist—had flown into space before. He was born on Christmas Day in 1959 in Plattsburgh, N.Y., the son of an Air Force pilot—“an Air Force brat,” he once said—and grew up on Air Force bases around the United States. Anderson earned his degree in physics and astronomy from the University of Washington and a master’s in physics from Creighton University. Betwixt his two degrees, he entered the Air Force and after training served as Chief of Communications Maintenance for the 2015 Communications Squadron and later Director of Information System Maintenance for the 1920 Information System Group. Flight training followed in 1986 and Anderson piloted the EC-135 for the Strategic Air Command. His later career carried him through roles as diverse as aircraft commander, instructor pilot, and tactics officer, before selection into NASA’s astronaut corps in December 1994. Anderson made his first shuttle flight on STS-89 in January 1998.

“ … We have booster ignition … ”

Pictured during training in September 2001, Ilan Ramon was Israel's first astronaut. Photo Credit: NASA
Pictured during training in September 2001, Ilan Ramon was Israel’s first astronaut. Photo Credit: NASA

At some stage in the milliseconds after 10:39 am EST on 16 January 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia’s twin Solid Rocket Boosters—like a pair of colossal Roman candles, stacked on either side of the bulbous External Tank—spewed columns of golden flame and STS-107 took flight. For the last time, Columbia spread her wings under her own power. Hold-down bolts were explosively sheared and the behemoth began its climb for the heavens. Seated on the middeck, Ilan Ramon must have reflected in those adrenaline-charged seconds upon the importance of this mission for himself and for Israel. Born in Tel Aviv on 20 June 1954, Ramon entered the Israel Air Force Flight School and trained on the A-4, Mirage III-C, and F-16 aircraft. In 1981, he served as Deputy Squadron Commander B of the Israeli Air Force’s F-16 Squadron. Ramon earned a degree in electronics and computer engineering from Tel Aviv University in 1987 and rose in his military career to become a Squadron Commander and Head of the Aircraft Branch in the Operations Requirement Department and, later, Head of the Department of Operational Requirement for Weapon Development and Acquisition. These posts ended in 1998, when Ramon began dedicated space shuttle training. “When I was selected,” he told a NASA interviewer, “I really jumped, almost to space. I was very excited.” As recounted in yesterday’s history article, Ramon’s mission marked a watershed moment for a nation and religion which had emerged from the trauma of Second World War persecution and, whether for good or ill, had asserted itself in the Middle East.

Scattering hordes of terrified seabirds, Columbia rockets into orbit for the final time on 16 January 2003. Never again would the whole vehicle be seen directly and up close by human eyes. Photo Credit: NASA
Scattering hordes of terrified seabirds, Columbia rockets into orbit for the final time on 16 January 2003. Never again would the whole vehicle be seen directly and up close by human eyes. Photo Credit: NASA

“ … and Liftoff of Space Shuttle Columbia with a multitude and national and international space research experiments … ”

Next to Ramon was a second Navy flight surgeon, Captain Laurel Blair Salton Clark, also making her first space mission. Clark came from Ames, Iowa, where she was born on 10 March 1961, and studied zoology as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, then entered medical school and earned her doctorate in 1987. During this period, she undertook active-duty training with the Diving Medicine Department at the Naval Experimental Diving Unit and commenced Navy undersea medical officer training in 1989. Clark’s naval career included numerous medical evacuations from U.S. submarines, and she became a qualified flight surgeon, deploying overseas to the western Pacific. She was serving as a flight surgeon for the Naval Flight Officer advanced training squadron in Pensacola, Fla., when she was selected by NASA in April 1996. “I never really thought about being an astronaut or working in space myself,” she said before launch. “I was very interested in environment and ecosystems and animals.” That changed over time with her developing naval and medical expertise. “It was really just sort of a natural progression when I learned about NASA,” Clark added, “and what astronauts do and the type of things that they are expected to do, that I thought about the things I had done so far and became more interested in that as a career.”


Video courtesy of NASA

Columbia rose from Earth to the cheers and Hebrew prayers of an assembled multitude. The picture-perfect launch would make headlines in Tel Aviv, providing a brief distraction from the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. Even Tiewfiek Khateeb, an Arab-Israeli member of parliament, described it as “a happy occasion,” but refused to be drawn on whether the goodwill might be extended into politics. Said Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States: “Only two generations after the Jewish people were at their lowest ebb, on the very demise … here we are soaring up and making great achievements.”

An adventurer and explorer at heart, Willie McCool was making his first space mission on STS-107. Photo Credit: NASA / Ben Evans personal collection
An adventurer and explorer at heart, Willie McCool was making his first space mission on STS-107. Photo Credit: NASA / Ben Evans personal collection

As STS-107 cleared the Pad 39A launch tower and climbed into a beautifully clear Florida sky, Columbia kicked off an ambitious series of six shuttle missions planned for 2003 … and the only flight not destined for the International Space Station. In fact, not since 1998 had a long-duration shuttle mission been devoted exclusively to multidisciplinary experiments, and this caused concern to both the scientific community and Congress, who were keenly aware that the United States might lose its “lead” in the microgravity research arena. At a March 2000 hearing, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher had declared that “We can’t expect the scientific community to remain engaged if researchers do not see hope that there will be research flight opportunities on a regular basis.” Moreover, performing experiments for a couple of weeks offered a highly valuable testbed before committing them in the longer term to the ISS. At length, Spacehab, Inc., which had been building pressurised science modules since the 1980s, offered its new Research Double Module to support 80 investigations. To Mike Anderson, responsible for overseeing the integration of payload requirements into an effective timeline that he and his crew could follow, it was clear from the enormous breadth and depth of STS-107’s experiments that this mission was one that the scientists had waited a long time to see happen. The workload would be great, but the payoffs were expected to be equally so.

As Columbia vanished from view in the sky, heading for orbit, no one could possibly have foreseen the calamity that would ungulf her, two weeks hence. No one could have guessed that she would never be seen up close by human eyes again. No one could have guessed that the STS-107 crew would never hold their loved ones again. And no one could have imagined that Columbia would accomplish 99.9 percent of her mission and fight like a trooper to save her human occupants and bring them safely home. A tough 16 days lay ahead … and beyond that lay an even tougher two and a half years.


The third part of this article will appear next weekend.

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