Remembering Columbia, Families, NASA Focus on Change

Jon Clark will spend Sunday deep in the woods of East Texas.

He will take his 9-year-old son, Iain, with him, to see the place where pieces of the space shuttle Columbia landed after it broke apart. Clark's wife, Laurel, was one of the seven astronauts killed when Columbia disintegrated in the skies over Texas. The pain is still as strong today, as it was a year ago, when he had to tell his son that his mother was not coming home again.

"I have come to the conclusion that I won't ever recover, there will always be a sense of loss and pain and hurt," Clark said. "I've lost a lot, but I've gained a lot too. I have a perspective and reverence for life. I have my son and seeing him through this has been very rewarding, though it has been difficult as well."

While employees at NASA are optimistically counting down the days until the next shuttle launch, they are haunted by their failure to prevent the accident which destroyed Columbia.

What went wrong for Columbia and its crew? Several things, according to a report released by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) this past summer.

Cultural Cause: A Bigger Hurdle

The physical cause was simple. Foam came off the external fuel tank, puncturing the leading edge of the left wing. During reentry superheated air penetrated the wing and spread through the orbiter which caused it to breakup as it headed toward Florida to land at the Kennedy Space Center. Columbia disintegrated over Texas, at a height and speed which made it impossible for the crew to survive.

Also at fault, says Admiral Harold Gehman, who headed up the Columbia Accident Investigation, is the culture at NASA, which blinded managers to the problem of foam shedding from the external tank, and the risk it presented to the shuttle fleet. That will be tougher to fix than any technical problem.

"We know you can't change culture and attitude in just a few weeks or a few months," said Gehman. "There are some elements of this plan they are having trouble with, and I believe that will be the hardest part of our return to flight recommendations."

There are 15 recommendations NASA must comply with before the next shuttle flies again. Commander Eileen Collins will lead a crew of seven on STS 114, which is tentatively scheduled to fly in September.

It is a mission that will test every one of the CAIB recommendations and bring badly needed supplies to the International Space Station, which has been operating with reduced crews since the Columbia accident. Commander Collins says she thinks of her friends on Columbia daily.

"Our crew patch will have a remembrance of the Columbia crew on our mission. Clearly we are going to remember them, and their contribution to space exploration," she said.

The man who will say go- or no go for the next shuttle mission is Wayne Hale, the new director of the Mission Management Team. He is well aware of the direction his agency must take.

"You cannot live through an experience like this, you cannot wake up in the morning and realize that seven of your coworkers died because maybe you didn't do a good enough job and ever look at the work in the same way," he said. "You can argue about have we changed enough, have we modified our behavior far enough? We are still working on a lot of those things, but the real change is the emotional change."

Changing Attitudes, Changing Furniture

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