What would you tell seven astronauts if you knew their space shuttle was crippled on orbit?
It was a question that faced NASA's Mission Control considered after initial suspicions that something might be wrong with the shuttle Columbia as it was making its doomed reentry in 2003.
Wayne Hale, who later became space shuttle program manager, struggled with this question after the deaths of the Columbia crew 10 years ago. Recently he wrote about the debate in his blog, recalling a meeting to discuss the dilemma:
"After one of the MMTs (Mission Management Team) when possible damage to the orbiter was discussed, he (Flight Director Jon Harpold) gave me his opinion: 'You know, there is nothing we can do about damage to the TPS (Thermal Protection System). If it has been damaged it's probably better not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don't you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done, until the air ran out?"
A bleak assessment. Orbiting in space until your oxygen ran out. The dilemma for mission managers is that they simply didn't know if the space shuttle was damaged.
The doomed astronauts were not told of the risk.
One of the most dramatic moments after the space shuttle Columbia crashed came when entry Flight Director Leroy Cain ordered the doors locked and computer data saved. Columbia's crew was not coming home.
There were tears in his eyes and stunned silence in Mission Control. The space shuttle Columbia had disintegrated over Texas, killing the seven astronauts on board and scattering debris across hundreds of miles.
While no one knew for sure what caused Columbia's accident, there were engineers at the Johnson Space Center who were pretty sure they knew what happened, who had tried to alert senior management, and who were ignored.
Rodney Rocha was one of them, and on that sunny Saturday morning in Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center, when data from the orbiter stopped coming in, and the position display froze over Texas, he was concentrating on the unusual buildup of sensor telemetry on the crippled orbiter.
Several engineers at the space agency suspected something was wrong. Fuzzy video showed foam breaking off the orbiter's external fuel tank and hitting its left wing during blast off. But no one knew if there was damage. At that time NASA had no options for repair. The crew was on a science mission, nowhere near the International Space Station. They had no robotic arm to look at the wing, no way to repair the wing if they had damage, and it would take much too long to send up another space shuttle to rescue the crew.
It was agonizing for Rocha, who had begged the Mission Management Team to ask the Department of Defense to use whatever it had to take high resolution photos. He was turned down. In an exclusive interview with ABC News in 2003 he detailed how his requests were repeatedly denied.
"I made a phone call to the manager of the shuttle engineering office, the same person that had relayed the 'No" message to me from orbiter management. I was still pretty agitated and upset. Had he spoken to our engineering director about this? I wanted the director of JSC engineering to be informed. Had he been informed? And he said no. I was thunderstruck and astonished again."
Engineers at Mission Control thought they were seeing an unusual but non-critical data drop-out. They had also noticed highly unusual buildup of sensor telemetry in the preceding few minutes.
About three minutes after all data stopped, astronaut Charlie Hobaugh, who was the capcom in Mission Control, began transmitting in the blind to Columbia on the UHF backup radio system. "Columbia, Houston, UHF comm. check," he repeated every 15 to 30 seconds, but with no response. In central Texas, thousands of people at that moment were observing the orbiter break up at Mach 18.3 and 207,000 feet.
A few minutes later is when Cain ordered the doors locked and the computer data saved.
The painful investigation in the year that followed determined foam was the physical cause of the accident. A piece of foam the size of a briefcase – weighing 1.67 pounds – slammed into Columbia's left wing during blast off, gouged a hole in the protective tiles, which left the shuttle vulnerable to the brutal temperatures of re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.
But investigators soon found more than foam was to blame. For years foam had been coming off the external tank and hitting the shuttle, and for years NASA had come to accept foam debris as normal.
Wayne Hale is the only person at NASA who publicly accepted blame for the "normalization of the abnormal." He went on to lead NASA's return to flight for the space shuttle program. And he vowed that the space agency would never again leave anyone behind.
"After the accident, when we were reconstituting the Mission Management Team. My words to them were 'We are never ever going to say that there is nothing we can do,'" Hale said. That is hindsight.
That is the lesson.