Bringing Columbia Home: The Untold Story of a Lost Shuttle and Her Crew
(c) 2018 Michael Leinbach and Johnthan Ward
On February 1st, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated in the skies above Texas and Louisiana, some sixteen minutes from home. Nearly twenty years after the Challenger disaster, the Shuttle program had faded into the background, its launches and landings untelevised and its progress building the International Space Station unnoticed by most. Even the death of Columbia and her crew would soon be overshadowed by the Iraq war, but before that debacle began, something extraordinary happened. Some twenty-five thousand people were drawn together — multiple layers of otherwise territorial government agencies and civilian organizations — to comb the rough country of east Texas and Louisiana amid the last storms of winter, all in an effort to reclaim the bodies of the fallen and to find answers to Columbia’s demise. Bringing Columbia Home is a beautiful history of this extraordinary recovery effort, one that reminds readers that despite human frailties we can be astonishingly noble at times.
The Shuttle Transport System, encompassing both the Shuttle itself and the booster that aides it into space, was a triumph of human engineering. Into the Black, on the launching of Columbia, covered the laborious efforts of the Air Force and NASA to create a reusable ‘space plane’. As complex a craft as it was, a lot could go wrong. One shuttle had already been lost, some seventeen years prior: Challenger blew up as it began its final push to escape Earth’s atmosphere, destroyed by cold-stiffened O-rings. As NASA’s men and women on the ground realized that Columbia had joined her sister ship Challenger in destruction, they could not pause to mourn but instead had to focus on the painful task of finding out answers. As reports of falling debris filtered in, the outlines of a search area began to take shape. Local law enforcement and state forestry agencies were soon working hand in hand with FEMA and NASA to organize a comprehensive recovery effort. Astonishingly, there was no feuding over turf, something so common in investigations: the massive undertaking was broken into different parts and divided among agencies as appropriate. As impressive as this coordination was, it wouldn’t have been possible without support from the people of east Texas and Louisiana, who not only provided boots on the ground but supported the search teams being flown in, helping to feed and shelter thousands of new arrivals — many of whom carried the burden of knowing the men and women they were searching for. As journalists swarmed in like locusts, invading the privacy of mourners and even attempting to capture video of remains being recovered, the people of places like Lufkin closed ranks around NASA and protected the privacy of the dead and those who wept for them. Astonishingly, every member of the crew was located, and enough of Columbia was found to enable NASA to figure out what had happened, using physical remnants in conjunction with the data recovered from Columbia’s flight recorders. During launch, insulating tile from the booster flew off and impacted Columbia’s left wing, fatally compromising it and dooming the craft. Even had Columbia’s crew known about the impact, they had no way of investigating the scope of the damage, or repairing it.
Bringing Columbia Home is a sad, but beautiful history, absolutely moving in what it captures — the generosity of ordinary people, the willing sacrifices of searchers, some of whom lost their lives attempting to find the crew, and the determination of NASA’s engineers to find answers even in their pain.