2004: The New York Times
Award for Deadline News Reporting
Monday, March 1, 2004
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Deadline News Reporting

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Shuttle breaks up, 7 dead

‘Roger,’ and then silence

February 1, 2003

By David E. Sanger

WASHINGTON -- The space shuttle Columbia broke up this morning on re-entry into the earth's atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts on board and sending fiery debris over Texas in the second loss of a space shuttle in 17 years.

There was no immediate explanation of what caused the disintegration of the oldest shuttle in NASA's fleet, but there were some tantalizing clues. By late this afternoon, space agency engineers were describing a cascading series of failures of sensors on the left side of the craft.

That led to speculation that some kind of structural damage took place -- perhaps caused by insulation that fell loose when the Columbia lifted off 16 days ago, perhaps from some other cause -- that triggered a catastrophic failure about 9 a.m. Eastern time. But at a news conference, NASA officials said that had been analyzed and found not to be a concern.

The disaster occurred roughly 40 miles above Earth as the shuttle slipped into the netherworld between outer space and the upper atmosphere, just as it was slowing to 12,500 miles an hour and was minutes from its destination, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Yet as the countdown clock at the landing site in Florida reached zero at 9:16 a.m., with an eerie silence and no sign of the shuttle, flaming debris was already falling in East Texas, and then in Louisiana.

Just minutes before the spaceship was lost, flight specialists in Houston had been communicating with the crew, talking about tire pressure on the Columbia. Nothing appeared wrong. Then Mission Control in Houston said, ''We did not copy your last.''

''Roger, uh ---- '' came the reply from the shuttle, then there was silence, and then just static.

The loss revived a long-simmering debate in Congress about the space program and is certain to lead to new hearings. It also renewed questions about whether cost-cutting and management problems at NASA may be compromising astronauts' safety. [Page 32.]

President Bush, informed of the disaster at Camp David by his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., rushed back to the White House, his motorcade speeding down the mountain and then racing through suburban Maryland. He appeared drawn and stricken as he addressed the nation five hours after the shuttle broke up.

''The Columbia is lost,'' he said from the cabinet room. ''There are no survivors.'' But as President Ronald Reagan did 17 years and four days ago, when the shuttle Challenger exploded, Mr. Bush vowed that the American space program would go on.

''The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today,'' he said. He told the nation that while the astronauts had not safely returned to earth, ''we can pray they are safely home.''

By the time Mr. Bush spoke at 2 p.m., the nation knew the fate of the crew. Much as viewers around the world knew the meaning of the terrifying images they saw on Jan. 28, 1986, when the Challenger exploded, they understood instinctively that there was no chance any of the five men and two women aboard the Columbia could survive a disintegration so high in the sky.

The silent confirmation of their deaths came around noon today, as the White House lowered its flag to half-staff.

The best-known member of the crew was the first Israeli to go into space, Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force who more than two decades ago participated in Israel's attack on a nuclear reactor in Iraq, and has long been a national hero.

Because of Colonel Ramon's participation in the mission, security was extraordinarily tight. Experts said it was extremely unlikely that the shuttle had been deliberately struck, noting that it was so high in the atmosphere that it was out of range of anti-aircraft systems and missiles. A review of satellite data, administration officials said, detected nothing untoward.

Mr. Bush called Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel this morning, and the two men -- friends from before either took office -- grieved together, as did their nations. Other world leaders, including several Mr. Bush has been at odds with over Iraq, called to express condolences.

The flight was under the command of Col. Rick D. Husband of the Air Force and piloted by a Navy commander, William C. McCool. The mission was an unusual one for NASA these days in that it was intended purely for scientific experiments, more than 90 in all. More commonly, the shuttle is used to transport crew, equipment and supplies to the International Space Station, and to support military missions.

The scientific payload was overseen by Lt. Col. Michael P. Anderson of the Air Force; Dr. Kalpana Chawla, an aerospace engineer; and two Navy doctors, Capt. David M. Brown and Cmdr. Laurel Salton Clark.

The re-entry began about 14 minutes before the breakup. Re-entry has long been considered one of the riskiest moments in space flight, when a spacecraft is subjected to temperatures in excess of 2,000 degrees as it speeds through the atmosphere. But there is always a risk of structural failure -- this was the 28th mission for the Columbia and the 113th shuttle mission to date -- and, however remote, the risk of damage from meteoroids or space debris.

In past space accident investigations, early theories often proved wrong. But several days ago, NASA reported that a piece of what appeared to be foam insulation had fallen from the shuttle's left tank during the launching and hit its left wing. A similar shedding of debris occurred in a previous flight, but did no major damage.

Ron D. Dittemore, the space shuttle program manager, told reporters this afternoon that ''we don't believe, at this point'' that the debris caused the disaster.

Seeking the cause will be the subject of two investigations, one conducted by the space agency and another directed by someone outside NASA -- a quiet acknowledgment that the agency has been accused of cover-ups in past disasters, including the Challenger accident.

''We will find the cause, we will fix it, and then we will move on,'' said William F. Readdy, a former astronaut who now runs the agency's manned flight operations.

NASA will activate a board of independent outside experts to oversee parts of the investigation, according to people involved. The board is led by Harold W. Gehman, a retired admiral who was the co-chairman of the independent commission that investigated the attack on the destroyer Cole.

Other members include James Hallock, chief of the Aviation Safety Division at the Volpe Research Center, part of the federal Department of Transportation, and Steven B. Wallace, who is in charge of the accident investigation branch of the Federal Aviation Administration. There are several military members, including Maj. Gen. Wilbert D. Pearson, commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, and Rear Adm. Stephen A. Turcotte, commander of the Naval Safety Center, in Norfolk, Va.

Whatever happened to the Columbia seemed unrelated to the causes of the Challenger disaster, which was triggered by a failure of seals in a booster rocket as the shuttle was in its ascent. Those rockets are shed minutes after launching, and the orbiter falls back to earth with only minimal power, moving in S-like patterns to skip off the atmosphere and slow the craft.

The space agency, which spent tens of millions of dollars improving safety after the Challenger accident, has estimated the risk of a calamitous event on re-entry as 1 in 350.

There is no escape from the shuttle, either on liftoff or on landing. Extensive studies of the possibility of placing an escape pod on the orbiter, to be used either on liftoff or on landing, concluded that there was no practical or safe way to design such a system.

It was difficult to assess how large a setback the loss of the Columbia would pose for the shuttle program. The Challenger accident resulted not only in a redesign of the booster rockets, but also in a major shake-up of the space agency, which had covered up evidence of longstanding problems in the shuttle's design.

The shuttle did not fly again for nearly three years, until Sept. 28, 1988, when the Discovery lifted off with a crew of five. With today's loss, the shuttle fleet stands at three: Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour.

The biggest impact now may be on America's contribution to the International Space Station. Aboard the station now are three astronauts, two Americans and a Russian, who will be directly affected by any delay in shuttle launchings while the accident is investigated. The station crew has completed three months of a scheduled four-month tour and was to be picked up by the shuttle Atlantis, which had been scheduled for a March 1 launching.

The station has a large stock of food, water and other supplies that would allow the crew to stay aloft for several months.

In addition, the Russian Space Agency was scheduled to launch an unmanned cargo ship with equipment and supplies to the station on Sunday. On Monday, the station's crew held a brief conversation with the crew of the Columbia -- who could see the space station in orbit as they spoke.

There was no evidence today of any advance warnings about unusual risks in the shuttle's re-entry phase. But because the orbiter is studied with great care after each landing, there is an extraordinarily large amount of data about the shape of the Columbia after each mission.

Cameras trained on the skies for the first sight of the orbiter caught what appeared to be a normal re-entry. But the signals being received in Houston suggested, in retrospect, that trouble was building. At 8:53 a.m. Eastern time, a sensor for the left-side hydraulic systems fell to zero. Five minutes later, another temperature sensor failed.

''It's as if someone just cut the wire,'' Mr. Dittemore said.

Two minutes after that, all communication was lost, and optimism about a smooth landing on a beautiful day turned to fear, then panic.

NASA declared a ''mission contingency,'' but the truth was evident to anyone looking at the live footage: the Columbia had broken up, and pieces were flying away from the body as it whipped, in a terrifying arc, across the sky.

But there was none of the immediate drama of the Challenger explosion, because this disaster took place so far in the air, near where the upper atmosphere peters out, and not in full view of an assembled multitude at Cape Canaveral.

Hundreds of square miles of Texas and Louisiana were littered, however, with debris from the shuttle. In Hemphill, Tex., a driver came across what appeared to be part of the remains of an astronaut.

The space program today carries none of the political import it did 17 years ago, when it was still a symbol of America's status in the cold war. Nonetheless, it is a symbol of American scientific achievement, and the inclusion of foreign astronauts -- from former enemies as well as allies -- became a piece of American diplomacy.

That was evident on Jan. 16, when more than 300 dignitaries and guests from Israel watched as Colonel Ramon became the first Israeli in space. ''It was so moving,'' said Danny Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador to the United States. ''The skies were colored blue and white; these are our national colors. We are privileged to join this very prestigious club of nations who have had astronauts in space.''

Colonel Ramon had little room to take personal items on the flight, but he did lift off with a piece of Holocaust-era art: a small black-and-white drawing called ''Moon Landscape'' that he had borrowed from the Yad Vashem Art Museum in Israel. The drawing, by Peter Ginz, a 14-year-old Jewish boy killed at Auschwitz in 1944, was a picture by a child who dreamed of faraway places and sketched what he thought the Earth would look like from the mountains of the moon.

This morning, nearly 60 years later, it was incinerated over the skies of Texas.

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First the air shook with sound, and then debris rained down

February 1, 2003

By David M. Halbfinger and Richard A. Oppel Jr.

NACOGDOCHES, Tex. -- It sounded like a freight train, like a tornado, like rolling thunder -- and then a gigantic boom.

It fell from the sky in six-inch chunks and seven-foot sections of steel, ceramics, circuit boards and who-knows-what.

It tore holes in cedar rooftops, scorched front lawns, ripped a streetlight from its pole and littered the parking lot behind the Masonic hall downtown.

But miraculously, officials say, the countless bits of debris from the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia that rained down on hundreds of square miles of East Texas and western Louisiana this morning injured no one on the ground.

There were horrifying discoveries, nonetheless. Officials confirmed tonight that human remains were found in Sabine County; there, in Hemphill, Tex., a hospital worker said he found a charred torso and skull near debris on a rural road.

The grim fallout scattered along a path at least 100 miles long and 10 miles wide, officials said. Here in Nacogdoches County, more than 1,000 reports of debris had come in by early evening, covering 500 square miles, more than half the county's area. But it seemed likely that there was more than one track of debris: fragments of the shuttle were also discovered some 80 miles north in Shreveport, La.

John Hughes, 34, was at work at his fiberglass factory when he was stopped by the noise. He walked outside to watch contrails corkscrew overhead, heard his uncle say ''God Almighty,'' and turned to see a giant ball four feet across float to the earth like a parachute.

''I was telling everyone who was with me, 'You know, we really shouldn't be touching it,' but I just couldn't stand it,'' Mr. Hughes said. ''Like curiosity killed the cat. It wasn't hot, there were no heat shimmers, we put our hand above it and then we touched it and there was nothing. We kicked at it a little bit. The thing doesn't weigh as much as four gallons of milk.

''At first I was saying this is probably the coolest thing I have ever seen. Then we found out what it was and it was like, this is not the coolest thing I have seen anymore. It's too sad.''

Across Texas and Louisiana, witnesses told of curiosity at the sound, at the ''sparkles'' they saw in the sky, and then of horror -- of a sickening feeling as they learned of what had just happened, of what it was that was landing all around them.

Don Redfern, who lives in Palestine, Tex., said he saw the explosion out his car window. Mr. Redfern said he saw a glare first and thought nothing of it. Then he started to hear repeated sonic booms. ''It was flopping back and forth across the sky, so I knew it was something out of the ordinary,'' Mr. Redfern said. ''The contrails, as it went by, were zigzagging. It's not like anything I've seen before, and I don't want to see it again.''

East of Toledo Bend, La., Pat Breaux found wreckage not far from her brick, tin-roofed home. ''It was horrible, it was just devastating,'' Mrs. Breaux said. ''We got a little bit shook.''

NASA and local emergency officials warned residents to stay away from the debris to avoid being exposed to toxic materials carried aboard the craft.

Along with the vast stores of solid and liquid fuel that boost it into space, a shuttle carries propellants and fuels that help it stay precisely positioned in orbit and provide power for hydraulic systems. Some of these are extremely dangerous and carcinogenic substances, including hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide.

On the ground, hundreds of local, state and federal law enforcement officers raced to locate, cordon off and guard debris against theft as officials told of scattered instances of souvenir-scavenging. Some homeowners even barred investigators from their properties in hope of keeping debris for themselves but then relented, one official said.

At the center of Nacogdoches, crowds of onlookers thronged around one roped-off hunk of metal, laying bouquets, joining in prayer circles and gaping at one another. ''Everybody's treating this like it's an alien crash,'' said Phillip Russell, 17.

A detachment of 180 military police officers from Fort Polk, La., were en route here tonight, even as the county sheriff, Thomas Kerss, told of unconfirmed reports of people offering bits of debris for sale on eBay. Officials said the Federal Bureau of Investigation was to take jurisdiction over all debris eventually, and they warned that scavengers would be prosecuted.

Helicopters, F-16's and soldiers hunted for debris, marked it with global-positioning devices and left it in the care of National Guardsmen and volunteer firefighters. Officials said NASA was particularly eager to find pieces of the control panel.

But the scientist in charge of mapping Nacogdoches's debris locations, Dr. James Kroll, said most of the debris had probably ended up in the vast unpopulated pine forests near here. ''People will be walking in there 10 years from now and find debris pieces,'' Dr. Kroll said.

Just what was recovered was up to the inexpert to describe: a big metal cylinder with jagged, burnt edges, spewing yellow smoke on Highway 155. A long metal shard embedded in the dirt of a cemetery. A pair of big tanks on the runway of the city airport.

John Anderson, 59, found close to 80 pieces of debris on his 14-acre patch of grass and woods, mostly pieces of tile, from postage-stamp-size to two feet long.

He said he saw the one that landed on his front porch first, recognized it and knew what had happened before he turned on the television.

''We heard this low-frequency, high-energy sound, an enormous release of energy, sort of a ragged boom,'' Mr. Anderson said. ''I hadn't even remembered that the shuttle was landing today. Unfortunately we have gotten to the point of thinking of them as completely safe and commonplace. Then I remembered it was landing today, and I was afraid maybe something happened.

''Then I went outside and I recognized the tile. I've seen them on display at NASA at the Johnson Space Center. We went around and planted surveyor flags next to them.''

The awful thing, he said, was ''the realization that what you had thought possibly could be the case from what you had felt, was obviously the case. We had the TV on, and by that time they were reporting there had been no communication. But we already knew.''

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Inquiry putting an early focus on heat tiles


February 1, 2003

By William J. Broad and James Glanz

Although it could take months for NASA officials to learn what caused the destruction of the shuttle Columbia, they focused yesterday on the possibility that some of its protective tiles had failed, dooming the craft.

A small piece of speeding debris hit tiles on Columbia's left wing during the shuttle's blastoff, space agency officials said. Though the incident was analyzed at length and dismissed as insignificant, they and other experts said it might have set off a train of problems that ended in the destruction of the spacecraft and the death of its seven crew members.

Ron Dittemore, shuttle program manager, said today at a NASA briefing that the impact had been analyzed by experts nationwide, who concluded that ''it did not represent a safety concern.''

''The technical community got together and across the country looked at it and judged that to be acceptable,'' Mr. Dittemore said. In hindsight, though, he added, the impact was on the left wing, and ''all the indications'' of trouble seemed to emanate from the craft's left wing.

The experts cautioned that it was too soon to draw firm conclusions about what went wrong. Even if the wing tiles failed, they said, some other factor might have turned this problem into catastrophe.

''There are a lot of things in this business that look like the smoking gun but turn out not even to be close,'' Mr. Dittemore said.

Eugene E. Covert, an aerospace expert who helped investigate the Challenger disaster for the federal government, said, ''It's foolish to speculate.''

He added, however, that engineers might never learn exactly what went awry.

While experts regard damage to the protective tile heat shield as the likeliest culprit, they said there were at least five other possible causes, in this general order of decreasing likelihood:

  • An explosion of the ship's fuels and oxidizers, which are kept under high pressure;

  • Collapse in the shuttle's structure, which is aged;
  • Faulty navigation setup for the fiery re-entry, caused perhaps by a computer problem;
  • A collision with a speeding meteoroid or piece of space debris;
  • Terrorism, perhaps by a technician at the launching site.

The operation of all of the shuttle's myriad systems is monitored constantly and streams of data flow into NASA computers. Scientists will mine this trove in the days and weeks ahead, sifting for clues. ''You can look at the data bank in Houston as the biggest black box in the world,'' Dr. Covert said.

But it will take time. The final report on what destroyed the Challenger, which exploded in flames minutes after launching on Jan. 28, 1986, was issued nearly five months after the disaster, and experts still debate details of how a leaky booster rocket turned the shuttle into a ball of flame.

Also, Challenger blew up while still within sight of the Florida launching pad, where long-range cameras recorded many details of its destruction.

By contrast, Columbia experienced its problem high in the atmosphere, and though amateur observers reported seeing debris falling from the shuttle, government cameras were not tracking it.

NASA officials discounted reports that the shuttle was following an unusual re-entry course for security reasons because the Israeli astronaut, Col. Ilan Ramon, was aboard. ''There was nothing unusual about this trajectory at all,'' said Rob Navias, a NASA spokesman at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. ''It was a standard re-entry profile.''

Mr. Navias declined to speculate on causes, saying only that ''the computers were perfect all the way down'' and that NASA was impounding all mission data for the investigation.

But private experts said one of the likeliest causes of the Columbia disaster was faulty protective covering or tiles, which cover the shuttle's nose, wings and belly and protect it from the intense heat of re-entry.

On Jan. 16, as Columbia lifted off, a piece of insulating foam on its external fuel tank came off and was seen apparently hitting the left wing of the shuttle. Leroy Cain, the lead flight director in Mission Control, assured reporters on Friday that engineers had concluded that any damage to the wing and tiles was minor and posed no safety hazard.

''We took a very thorough look at the situation with the tile on the left wing and we have no concerns, whatsoever,'' Mr. Cain said.

But experts say a loose tile or protective surface might have started burning that triggered catastrophic failure during the fiery heats of re-entry. ''It could have started as a wing problem,'' said James E. Oberg, an expert on the shuttle program and a former NASA engineer. ''Wing problems quickly become whole spacecraft problems.''

Mr. Oberg said flight controllers might have been able to compensate for the tile problem by having the shuttle turn slightly -- no more than 10 degrees -- to shift some of the brunt of re-entry to the undamaged right wing.

Instead, the craft began losing tiles over California, he said.

Mr. Dittemore said at the news conference that the first indication of trouble came shortly before 9 a.m. Eastern time when the flow of data from temperature sensors in the hydraulic systems of the left wing abruptly ceased. A series of other data failures occurred seconds and minutes later.

Around the same time, astronomers at the California Institute of Technology say, Columbia was trailing fiery debris as it passed over Eastern California, sending out flashes and pieces, as if dropping flares.

''I saw a bright spot in the sky and then a tail,'' said Dr. Carmen Sanchez-Contreras, an astronomer at Caltech. ''The other thing I saw was a second bright spot, much smaller, separating from the shuttle.''

In past shuttle missions, NASA has used long-range cameras on the ground -- and perhaps had access to images from space-based spy cameras -- to examine the winged spaceships for signs of damage.

Whether such precautions were taken on this mission is not known, though it is likely to be a point of investigation.

Also, experts said, Columbia on this mission was not carrying one of NASA's robot arms in its 60-foot payload bay. In the past, astronauts have used cameras mounted on a robot arm to look for tile damage. It was not clear whether any of Columbia's astronauts had undergone training for a space walk, which would have let them visually inspect the ship for damage.

But even if Columbia astronauts had spotted the problem, it is not clear whether they could have done anything, beyond tweaking their re-entry path and hoping for the best, to save themselves.

Another possible explanation for the disaster is a chemical explosion, experts say. The shuttles are loaded with hydrogen, oxygen and exotic fuels to power their many engines. Just before descent, a shuttle starts three extra power units, which run on hydrazine, a highly volatile fuel.

These so-called auxiliary power units run the shuttle's hydraulic system, which moves the spaceship's body flaps and rudder and deploys the landing gears. Temperamental and high-tech, these units have a history of woes, including outright failure. But none have ever exploded.

Another possible cause is structural failure. Columbia was the oldest orbiter in the nation's fleet, having first blasted into space in April 1981.

Robert Weatherwax, an analyst who in 1983 did a classified study of shuttle risks for the Air Force, said that Columbia's failure during re-entry appeared to be near the point where the shuttle was undergoing the maximum buffeting as it pounded through the high atmosphere. The old craft, he suggested, might have suffered from the high stress.

''If there was going to be a problem on re-entry, that might be where you would see it,'' said Mr. Weatherwax, president of Sierra Energy and Risk Assessment, a company in Roseville, Calif.

But Mr. Dittemore discounted that possibility. ''A lot of tender loving care goes into the care of our vehicles,'' he said.

Another possibility is a computer or navigation error that subtly changed Columbia's angle of descent, increasing the re-entry pounding and heating. Ed Crawley, head of the department of astronautics and aeronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said something like that might have turned a minor wing problem into catastrophe.

''There could have been a computer glitch that changed the shuttle's attitude slightly, which could have caused more heating than there should have been, which then could have caused the structural failure,'' he said. ''Even if we know that the left wing started to overheat, that may not be the root cause.''

A remote possibility, experts say, is that a piece of space debris or a speeding rock hit Columbia.

Another possibility, which they regard as even more remote, is that a terrorist managed to strike. Experts say no terrorist on the ground could have used a missile to strike the shuttle, which was moving at almost 20 times the speed of sound at an altitude at 207,135 feet -- almost 40 miles -- when its sensors failed, suggesting it was breaking up. But, however unlikely, a terrorist might have managed to infiltrate the shuttle operations and sabotage Columbia's gear.

''The risk of terrorism is low but you can't rule it out,'' said Dr. John Tylko, a space shuttle expert atof M.I.T. ''Something might have been placed on board.''

Experts said the federal investigation would look closely at all these possibilities, and perhaps others.

''It's easy to seize on the most recent tidbit we've heard on a day like this and extrapolate,'' said Dr. Crawley of M.I.T. ''But realistically, there's not enough data. We have to be cautious.''

Stories copyright 2003 The New York Times. Reprinted with permission.

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