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Hale and Gehman
Wayne Hale (left) and Adm. Hal Gehman discuss lessons learned from the loss of Columbia at a symposium Friday in Washington. (credit: J. Foust)

Community, lenses, and learning: the “Columbia+10” workshop


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Last Friday, I attended an event co-sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and The Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. The event, titled “Columbia+10: Lessons Learned and Unlearned,” was developed as a forum for thoughtful evaluation and discussion of the Columbia accident of February 1, 2003, and its implications.

In my mind, DC is “ground zero” for spaceflight seismicity. The fault lines between what are colloquially called “old space” and “new space” are typical of those that emerge at times of historic change in industry when disruptive technology, policy, or economic factors hold sway.

Like many other people, the 10th anniversary of the loss of the crew had weighed on me and, between that and a very heavy work schedule, I had not planned to attend. But then close friend and former astronaut Sandy Magnus, Executive Director of the AIAA, invited me. As a member of the Astronaut class known as “The Sardines” because there were so many of them, Sandy had shared her early Astronaut training and experiences with fellow classmates Willie McCool, Dave Brown, and Laurel Clark, all lost that sad day.

I consider myself fortunate to count Sandy within my inner circle—not because of her astronaut chops but because I know few people of such integrity, dedication, and genuineness. If she and the other workshop participants and originators, most of whom were directly involved at the time of the accident, had the emotional courage to open this chapter in our collective memories, certainly I could support the effort. It seemed to me a wonderful way to honor Columbia’s crew, placing the disaster into a larger context of continued learning.

With all of that as a backdrop, I traveled to Washington for the workshop with both anticipation and apprehension. In my mind, DC is “ground zero” for spaceflight seismicity. The fault lines between what are colloquially called “old space” and “new space” are typical of those that emerge at times of historic change in industry when disruptive technology, policy, or economic factors hold sway. The periodic eruptions along those lines have quieted some of late, as collaborations increase and the hard lessons of space operations and changes in government and business environments take hold—but then the “feud” will resurface in the halls of Congress, within NASA, in the business community, the media, the blogosphere, on Twitter, or elsewhere.

To be sure, there are more and more people who are looking for solutions, who get the bigger picture, who are determined to make use of existing and developing systems and to retain or create capabilities critical to human spaceflight. These people—and I count myself among them—see ways that business, scientific, and exploration objectives might be fulfilled by a diverse community focused on the greater good.

In general we are too busy doing to worry about the rest, though perhaps we should. At the same time, however, forces are in play that may (one hopes) drive the rest to stop running with scissors. The US discretionary budget is shrinking, devoured by the rest of the government’s obligations. That budget, from which the vast majority of space exploration funds are derived (both through NASA and through the Air Force), is now financed largely on debt. The human spaceflight community is best served when self-interest of the whole is taken seriously and squabbling is set aside. Desiring a meaningful discussion that would contribute to national thought and policymaking, the Columbia+10 event’s organizers went out of their way to achieve it. By so doing, they set an example for the whole community.

Tears were evident on the faces of some of us reliving the past; somber and uncertain expressions marked the features of younger persons who watched events in the MCC unfold in entirety for the first time.

Sandy’s opening comments focused on the simple truth that our perceptions—and the meaning we assign to them—are colored by our own lives and learning; the “lens” through which we view experience. She talked about the hard work begun immediately after the accident, initially seeing through these lenses, then the collective combination of those perceptions, and finally the setting aside of individual views in order to understand what had happened to Columbia, and why. She invited the workshop participants to come together 10 years later, the edges of those perceptions softened by time, in order to learn anew.

Later in the morning, however, a keynote address focused on safety and implications for current contracting mechanisms for commercial cargo and crew. There is nothing wrong with raising these issues—they are important and obviously related to lessons learned from Columbia—but the talk was overly bureaucratic. All too predictably the tweets and murmurs within the room started to set up along the usual fault lines.

But a different outcome was in the offing. Beginning with the launch and foam impact, a video about the STS-107 mission followed on-orbit activities before replaying recovered footage of the crew donning gear, stowing equipment and in discussion about re-entry ops as jets fired and plasma flared visibly through the orbiter’s windows. The centerpiece of the video was a long, uncut, second-by-ghastly-second replay of the activities within the Mission Control Center as the first puzzling indicators of sensor failure in the left wing were reported to “Flight” (Leroy Cain). The minutes ticked by without interruption as the dawning horror took hold, culminating with CAPCOM Charlie Hobaugh’s unanswered “UHF Comm check” calls to Columbia and then Cain’s hoarse “GC, Flight; GC, Flight; Lock the doors” after NASA personnel relayed the news that the vehicle had broken up over Texas.

Fortunately, technical issues with the video forced a break in the workshop proceedings. I say “fortunately” because it gave people the opportunity to pull back. Tears were evident on the faces of some of us reliving the past; somber and uncertain expressions marked the features of younger persons who watched events in the MCC unfold in entirety for the first time. Understandably, a few people unwilling to re-experience those moments left the room during the video. Others left as soon as the break occurred.

As the A/V folks worked the technical problem, people found each other. Silence gave way to murmurings, and then to conversation. Some people were angry about being subjected to it all again. Some people were shut down. Some people had questions. Some people talked about anything other than what they had just seen. Some people were relatively unaffected. Regardless of personal response, however, the breakup and searing re-entry of Columbia and her crew—a visual that was not available to Mission Control in real time and therefore not in the video we were watching—had been brought fully into the here-and-now. More than any words, and trumping any business, policy, or ideological perspective, the losses and meaning of that day had resurfaced with an emotional wallop.

When channeled appropriately, tension can have powerful, focusing effects. That is what happened here. Back on track, fault lines forgotten, the remainder of the workshop went as intended. (C-SPAN filmed the event; video clips from most of the day are available here.) After a thoughtful compilation of storytelling, lessons learned, the results of forensic analyses, the “whys” of requirements and constant vigilance, amusing moments and dead-serious cautions about human foibles, emotional recounting of struggles and human sacrifice and coming together in the effort to search for, recover, and then surface the knowledge gleaned after the loss of vehicle and crew, the day was brought to a close by Wayne Hale, formerly a Space Shuttle Flight Director and later Space Shuttle Program Manager, and Admiral Hal Gehman, formerly Chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

Sandy commented on the change in the room as the day progressed. Scott agreed. “It’s a memorial,” I offered as they nodded, “and a fitting one.”

Admiral Gehman focused on the historical and cultural factors that caused the accident, and offered some prescriptions for countering them. For his part, throughout the month of January Wayne had published a series of essays on his blog recounting and attesting to his efforts to come to terms with STS-107. Characteristically, he chose to offer up what the “enduring lessons” he learned to the rest of us working in human spaceflight. Readers of this essay, particularly anyone now thinking about entering this field, are encouraged to study them.

At one point early in the afternoon as Sandy and I stood talking, Scott Pace, who put a lot of thought into the workshop and who earlier had reminded everyone in the room to “be humble before the hardware,” joined us. Sandy commented on the change in the room as the day progressed. Scott agreed. “It’s a memorial,” I offered as they nodded, “and a fitting one.” I, for one, felt relief, and not just for myself; it’s been evident to many of us that the emotional energy underlying our communal fault lines is fueled in part by the collective experience of grief and anger 10 years past—yet not really past.

The Columbia+10 event framed those experiences in a positive way. In so doing it created a new “lens”—or, perhaps, a collection of them—through which to view both past and future. As a community we owe the workshop originators and participants a debt of thanks, one we should seek to pay forward through individual example and collective insistence on a raised bar for discussion, debate, and learning.


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