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.