“My father died on the space shuttle Columbia, and I felt betrayed by NASA.”

The first sign was the countdown clock. On February 1, 2003, nine-year-old Casey Anderson was in the crowded stands near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, watching the seconds tick toward zero — and then begin to tick back up. The completely blue sky seemed to highlight the absence of the space shuttle Columbia, scheduled to return to Earth that Saturday morning with its father, Mike, and the six other astronauts aboard. Instead of a sonic boom and the orbiter approaching, suddenly “people were talking on the phone in urgent tones, and then they were getting into trucks,” recalls Casey, now 30. “That’s when I knew this wasn’t normal.”

They were bundled up with her mother, sister, and the rest of the astronauts’ families into a small truck and transported to the International Space Station. Space Center, and told that the worst had happened. Minutes after they were supposed to land to a hero’s welcome, the shuttle exploded at 190,000 feet, sending burnt metal and human remains falling to the ground in East Texas. The disintegration of the shuttle as it breached the planetary barrier was broadcast live as families stood staring into the sky, among the last to know the fate of their loved ones.

Twenty-one years ago Flight STS-107However, it remains among the worst space disasters in history, charted in excruciating detail in… Columbia: The space shuttle that fell to Earth, a three-part BBC documentary series starting on Monday (February 12). By its 28th and final mission, Columbia — dubbed “the world’s greatest electric flying machine” — had spent more time in space than any other shuttle. What’s even more galling is that the accident could have been completely avoided.

STS-107 crew members.  Blue Shirts From left: David M. Brown, William C. McCall and Michael Anderson.  Redshirts from left: Kalpana Chawla, Rick De Husband, Laurel B. Clark and Ilan RamonSTS-107 crew members.  Blue Shirts From left: David M. Brown, William C. McCall and Michael Anderson.  Redshirts from left: Kalpana Chawla, Rick De Husband, Laurel B. Clark and Ilan Ramon

STS-107 crew members. Blue Shirts From left: David M. Brown, William C. McCall and Michael Anderson. Red Shirts From left: Kalpana Chawla, husband Rick Dee, Laurel B. Clark and Ilan Ramon – NASA/Getty Images

From the moment the families learned what had happened, “it was chaos,” Casey says. She remembers being puzzled that her father — who spent eight days in space on the STS-89 Endeavor mission in 1998 — wasn’t the same as last time; On the flight back to Houston, she spent the flight staring at the clouds, “thinking: ‘Is my dad here?’ Am I close to him?

Neighbors were crowded at their front door when the three Andersons returned home, where they “huddled and cried for a long time.” It would mark the beginning of enormous national grief: there were memorial services, a meeting with President Bush; It was just a whirlwind of things. So we were sad, but there was so much going on that you couldn’t really sit through it. Once those obligations drifted away, “then it became more real. And for me, it became very scary.”

NASA They were providing security details outside their home, and their location was checked (a number of “strange calls” arrived, in some cases, from prisons) – but once that stopped, “I felt terrified, and I couldn’t sleep”. I didn’t know what was happening. I was constantly looking over my shoulder.

Widow of American astronaut Michael Anderson, Mrs. Anderson and her daughters Cindy (left) and Casey (right) plant a tree in memory of Michael Anderson on March 19, 2004.Widow of American astronaut Michael Anderson, Mrs. Anderson and her daughters Cindy (left) and Casey (right) plant a tree in memory of Michael Anderson on March 19, 2004.

Widow of American astronaut Michael Anderson, Mrs. Anderson and her daughters Cindy (left) and Casey (right) plant a tree in memory of Michael Anderson on March 19, 2004 – AFP/Gali Tibbon

Being treated so brutally by their parents, on a world stage, has left the children of Crew 107 fundamentally changed. Jonathan Clark, a NASA crew surgeon whose wife, Laurel, was on board, had spent the run-up to the launch worrying about their seven-year-old son, Ian. Their son had “begged her not to go” – his fears compounded after the family had narrowly survived a plane crash the previous Christmas; Ian’s mother was “his whole world.” Now 70-year-old Jonathan, who met Laurel during naval training, still “can’t even imagine the predicament she would have been in.” If she had withdrawn, the mission she and the rest of the crew had spent years training for would have been aborted. “She was determined and committed to getting the job done.”

Ian cried throughout the launch on January 16; A grim harbinger of what is to come in just over two weeks. In his NASA office that Saturday morning, as Jonathan watched the footage of 107’s final moments, he was struck by a “primal sadness.” It was like the deep howling cries of animals. He tried to numb his thoughts by playing cards with Ian on the ride home, and quickly hatched a plan: Once he returned, he would load his son into the car with his Australian shepherd, Addie, and all their camping gear, and empty his account at the nearest ATM: “I’ll We turn away and disappear.” But when they landed, the friends separated them, which “ruined my plan,” he says. “I still to this day wonder, what if I could do that?” Instead, that night, in accordance with established naval tradition, he became “extremely drunk” with his colleagues. “When we lost our comrades, we would drink and reminisce.”

Laurel Clark's seven-year-old son, Ian, had... Laurel Clark's seven-year-old son, Ian, had...

Laurel Clarke’s seven-year-old son, Ian, had “begged her not to go” in the run-up to the launch.

He gets emotional when we talk, even more so when he quotes Mark Twain that “the two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why.” That was the day I discovered why. There were times after losing his wife of 12 years, “I thought I was going to die of dehydration from crying.” He feared grief would push Ian to the point of depression and suicide, so he set one goal: “Just keep him alive.” The two (along with Addie) were huddled in bed, that countdown clock “embedded in my mind.” I would replay it for months and months afterward, trying to analyze: Is there something I could have done differently? Is there something I missed?”

For Jonathan, this thought is more intense than most. He was not the primary crew surgeon on Mission 107, but he did cover some “dog shifts” (midnight to morning). On one occasion, while reviewing log notes for speed, he learned that a lump of foam from the outside of the shuttle had fallen off at launch, apparently hitting its left wing. By the second day of the mission — and just days before the 17th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, in which seven crew members were killed 73 seconds after liftoff in 1986 — NASA officials concluded that losing the spacecraft and everyone inside was the worst of it. Scenario.

Laurel Clark blew kisses to her son Ian via video link as she orbited the EarthLaurel Clark blew kisses to her son Ian via video link as she orbited the Earth

Laurel Clark blew kisses to her son Ian via video link as she orbited the Earth

“Jonathan wondered if I should tell Laurel about this” – but when discussing the matter with his colleague he was told: “You’re wearing a crew surgeon’s hat, not a family member’s hat.” And so, thinking it wasn’t his call, he said nothing as they connected via video link, and Laurel blew kisses to Ian as she circled the Earth. “In some ways, what happened next is probably my fault, too,” he says.

Whether the seven crew could have been saved is a question that still hangs over many NASA workers at the time. The documentary reveals the battle between those who worry that the foam strike will lead to deadly consequences, and NASA administrationWhere bureaucracy was so ingrained that employees did not ask vital questions for fear of disrupting the status quo.

Repeated requests to use satellites to take closer images of the damage were refused by senior officers; The foam had separated on previous missions without catastrophic consequences and was thus deemed unworthy of treatment. The crew would only learn that something had happened on the eighth day of their mission — several days past the point where the potential damage could be repaired — when Linda Hamm, the shuttle’s acting director of launch integration, sent them a brief email about the matter. She described it as “not even worth mentioning.” Eight days later, when Mission Control saw their tracking radar stop over Texas, where the damage had originated on the left wing, commanders could only cup their hands over their mouths, tears falling from their eyes as they stared at the screen in horror.

STS-107 remains among the worst space disasters in historySTS-107 remains among the worst space disasters in history

STS-107 remains among the worst space disasters in history – courtesy of Scott Andrews

After the 107 failed to return, Ron Dittemore, the shuttle’s program manager, publicly refused to be the reason behind the foam strike, which former employees in the documentary described as “illogical.” What became NASA’s unofficial slogan—”It’s just foam”—was recorded six months later as the reason the crew would never see their families again.

“It felt like a betrayal, because her father ‘worked with NASA, and he loved them, and that’s how they treated him,’” Casey says. It kept her up all night, wondering how employees “were afraid of these hypothetical questions, or of Ruining their careers. Well, life is ruined – who cares about your career? That’s when he became angry. And then the anger finally became disgust.

She remembers not being able to look at anything with a NASA badge on it; When the end of the shuttle program was announced in 2011, I thought, “Well, burn it all to the ground.” As time passed, those feelings subsided, replaced by sadness for those who made the final decision. She says the documentary was “heartbreaking.” I watch NASA employees tell how they “could have done something…I don’t have to live with that kind of regret.”

Michael Anderson is no longer the same as he was in 1998 on the STS-89 Endeavor missionMichael Anderson is no longer the same as he was in 1998 on the STS-89 Endeavor mission

Michael Anderson is no longer the same as he was in 1998 on the STS-89 Endeavor mission – NASA/Getty Images

Jonathan also says he doesn’t blame anyone; that “everyone who was part of that decision-making process suffered immeasurably.” (Aaron Fellows, creative director of Mindhouse Productions, which produced the series, says NASA cooperated on filming throughout: “I think the reason they blessed this project is because they realize mistakes have been made.”) “Mistakes, as they are known “The goal is to find the cause, not the error.” “To do better next time.”

He never married again, and still lives for Laurel; Both her memory and the seven-year-old granddaughter who now bears her name. Little Laurel is the same age as Ian when he lost his mother, and Jonathan says the similarities between her and her name are “uncanny”. She is “very friendly”, obsessed with water, animals and adventure. “It’s like seeing Laurel again.”

Colombia: The Space Shuttle Has Fallen to Earth begins on Monday 12 February on BBC Two at 9pm

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(Tags for translation)Space Shuttle Columbia

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