by Jeff Foust
Bringing Columbia Home: The Untold Story of a Lost Space Shuttle and Her Crew
by Michael D. Leinbach and Jonathan H. Ward
Arcade Publishing, 2018
hardcover, 400 pp., illus.
The loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its seven-person crew on February 1, 2003, is arguably one of the pivotal moments in the history of NASA’s human spaceflight efforts. The investigation into the accident, and decision to rethink space policy, led to the decision to retire the shuttle upon completion of the International Space Station. It also led to starts and stops of programs in the years that followed, from the rise and fall of Constellation to the slow development of SLS, Orion, and commercial crew vehicles that leave the US without a means to send humans into orbit nearly seven years after the shuttle’s final flight.
However, the Columbia accident was also an intensely personal event for those involved with the program, and even for those in east Texas who had no connection with the space program until that Saturday morning, when pieces of the orbiter came raining down on them. That personal story is superbly told in Bringing Columbia Home by former NASA shuttle manager Michael Leinbach and author Jonathan Ward. (An interview with Ward about the book was previously published here; see part 1 and part 2.)
Leinbach was launch director for STS-107 and was at Kennedy Space Center to witness Columbia’s landing. He soon took a leading role in the effort to recover the debris from the shuttle and make sense of it as leader of the Rapid Response Team from KSC, looking for clues to explain the accident. That work ultimately involved a diverse group that included law enforcement officials from local police to the FBI, as well as FEMA, the Forest Service, and volunteers who helped in searches for debris spread across a long path in east Texas.
Leinbach’s first-person recollections of the recovery effort and investigation are mixed with accounts from others involved in the effort. Those accounts depict an effort that, while initially disorganized (who would plan for the recovery of debris from a shuttle reentry?) came together well, with disparate working well with, and learning from, one another. The small towns that became staging areas for the recovery efforts also offered tremendous support, taking care of the teams.
That recovery effort was hard work, going through thick forests in cold, wet conditions. It was also emotionally hard for many of the teams, particularly those from NASA. But sometimes the work had its light moments, such as when the authors discuss the arrival of wildland fire crews, predominantly Native American, who supported the search effort. “One of the first incident commanders the Forest Service brought in was a man named George Custer,” they wrote. “Understandably, many of the Native Americans wanted to have their picture taken with him.”
As the title suggests, the book offers some untold details—or at least little known—about the recovery efforts and investigation. Leinbach said that, while terrorism was never considered a likely cause of the accident, it still needed to be investigated. “I did not want my team to be worried about possible terrorism, so I brought in the FBI undercover,” he wrote, bringing them into the KSC hangar where the debris was being catalogued to quietly check for any explosive resident, which was never found. “I never told the team about their visit.”
Leinbach also looks back at some of the missed evidence of damage to Columbia, wondering if it would have been possible to mount a rescue mission to bring back its crew. From a shuttle launch and processing perspective, he concluded it would have possible to mount that mission provided NASA gave formal approval by January 23. That, though, would have required taking steps three days earlier to reduce use of consumables on Columbia, a step taken only if NASA determined the shuttle was damaged so badly it could not safely return home. Instead, he noted that a request for spysat imagery of Columbia to inspect it for damage was only made (and never, in fact, approved) January 22. “It had been already too late for a rescue.”
Bringing Columbia Home is a compelling, personal story about the Columbia accident and the efforts to recover—both the debris from the shuttle, and from the accident itself. It’s a reminder that, as we look at the big-picture policy perspective of human spaceflight, it’s also a very personal matter for those who put their lives on the line to fly, and those who support them.