- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 11, 2003

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Feb. 11 (UPI) — With even-keeled voices but rising anxiety, flight controllers grappled with a puzzling array of sensor readings and failures during what would be the final moments of shuttle Columbia's flight, then waited in silence while radars began searching for the ship and its astronauts, a chilling audio tape released by the accident investigation board on Tuesday shows.

Columbia was just minutes from its scheduled landing in Florida Feb. 1 when it broke up over Texas, killing the seven astronauts on board.

With no access to outside television which was broadcasting reports of debris on the ground in Texas, the engineering team in NASA's Mission Control Center stuck to their well-rehearsed procedures for overseeing the shuttle landing, with weather officers reporting wind speeds at the Kennedy Space Center runway while communications teams tried backup systems in an attempt to contact the shuttle.

The first indication of trouble was a report to Flight Director Leroy Cain of four separate high-temperature readings from instrumentation located in the rear part of Columbia's left wing, just in front of the moveable flaps, called elevons, needed to control the shuttle's position during its hourlong glide to the landing strip.

Incredulous, Cain professionally pressed "Max" — the Maintenance, Mechanical, Arm and Crew System officer, or MMACS, Jeff Kling for details and insight: Were the sensors linked? Did they go out exactly at the same time?

"Does everything look good to you," Cain asked his Guidance, Navigation and Control officer Mike Sarafin.

Columbia still looked on course.

Tire pressure and temperature sensors went next. Communications worsened.

"I didn't expect this bad of a hit," on communications, reported Katie Rogers, the Emergency, Environmental and Consumable Operations officer.

As the shuttle rolled left, one of many dips to dissipate speed in preparation for landing, communications with the ship and its crew were lost.

The flight team waited for two excruciatingly long minutes for the shuttle to fly within range of the Merritt Island, Fla., tracking station. Meanwhile, data about winds and landing speeds were still coming in to Cain.

"FIDO?" said Cain, addressing his flight dynamics officer. "When are you expecting tracking" data?

"One minute ago, flight," replied Richard Jones.

More silence as the ground staff came under the painful grip of reality.

On the tape, Cain calls for his team to begin contingency procedures, asks if U.S. Space Command has any reports, orders all outside communications to and from Mission Control to cease immediately.

At the end of the tape, Cain is asking about the rescue team.

"They have mobilized," his officer replies. "They are seeing what they can do to help us."

The tape is among the thousands of pieces of data the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which had its first news conference Tuesday, will use to try to determine what went wrong aboard the shuttle.

"We are tasked to find out what happened here," said board Chairman Harold Gehman. "The procedures of a safety investigation are such that we want to find the causes of this, not the guilty parties. If you look at our charter we are specifically excluded from assigning responsibility or culpability. We are not looking for that."

Gehman and his board plan to travel to the Kennedy Space Center Wednesday to begin a series of briefings and familiarize themselves with shuttle hardware and procedures. The first truckloads of Columbia wreckage, which will be reassembled by specialists in an attempt to learn more about what caused the accident, are also to arrive in Florida Wednesday.

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