Comment on the loss of Columbia, February 1, 2003

 

Mike, KC, Ilan and Dave with the Combustion Module-2 facility (NASA photo)

KC performing a SOFBALL test in the CM-2 facility (NASA photo)

 

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I've gotten a lot of phone calls and emails today from friends and colleagues around the world offering their condolences on my loss.  At first this struck me as being odd, since what I lost is trivial and meaningless compared to what others have lost today.  Apparently many people not directly involved with the mission or with the space program in general still feel a great sense of loss, just like we did from events like Challenger, 9/11, the Kennedy assassination, Pearl Harbor, etc.  Under such circumstances people feel helpless do to anything substantive, so they want to at least offer condolences to someone.  For many people I am more closely linked to the tragedy than anyone else they know, so I suppose it make sense that I would be a target for condolences.

 

I found out about the Columbia tragedy early this morning, about half an hour after it happened.  One of my associates had been monitoring the landing and called my home.  I was still in bed but my wife was up and she answered the phone.  She came running into the bedroom, crying, saying that the Shuttle had been lost.  As I'll explain later, she knew I had come close to flying on two previous Shuttle missions (on which I was the backup crewmember) and that I hoped to be on this flight.  When I first heard about the loss of Columbia, I wanted to know, could anyone have survived?  Where were they in the descent?  I quickly turned on the TV and learned that contact was lost at about 200,000 feet and Mach 17.  I knew from my astronaut training that there are no escape options at those conditions - you have to ride the vehicle no matter what its condition is.  (When you're lower and slower you have the option to bail out since you're wearing a pressurized suit and a parachute, but you don't have any thermal protection tiles on your suit, so you could never survive the heat of re-entry at high speeds and altitudes.)

 

I had met all of the crew.  Four of the seven (Mike Anderson, Dave Brown, Kalpana Chawla ("KC") and Ilan Ramon) conducted at least one test run on my experiment, called "Structure Of Flame Balls At Low Lewis-number," or "SOFBALL."  I had met these four many times during the course of training.  Even though KC was the only one of the four with a Ph.D. scientific background, all of them seemed really excited about my experiment, which I had been working on since 1984.  They asked me lots of questions about the science behind SOFBALL.  They didn't just learn how to do the experiment, they worked very hard on the development of the crew procedures to minimize the chance of mistakes and extract every possible bit of data.  I was especially pleased to see how Ilan, an Israeli military pilot with no scientific background, attacked the training with a vengeance.  He was determined to be an active and valued crewmember even though he was on the flight largely because President Clinton had promised Israel that NASA would fly an Israeli astronaut.  (A Saudi Arabian astronaut flew on a Space Shuttle flight in the mid 1980's, even before Challenger.)  Mike Anderson was one of the nicest people I ever met.  Even if you're a confident, self-assured person, after 5 minutes of talking to Mike you walked away feeling better about yourself. 

 

Even the other 3 crew members (Rick Husband, William McCool, Laurel Clark) played an important role in SOFBALL because it required a special Shuttle flight mode called "free drift" in order to minimize gravity disturbances.  That mode had to be set up by these crew members in coordination with the crew members actually performing the experiment.

 

I think the crew liked the SOFBALL experiment in part because the flame balls have "personalities."  Until you push the button and fire the spark, you don't know how many flame balls you'll get and you don't know what they'll do once they start burning.  Plus, humans are naturally drawn to fire, and flame balls are a bizarre type of fire that exists only in the low-gravity conditions of space.  In fact, after a few tests Dave Brown started naming the flame balls.  On all subsequent tests the crew either named the balls or gave the ground teams the opportunity to name them.  Ilan Ramon even named one "Paul Ronney".  (It turned out to be a weak and wimpy flame ball that lasted only a few minutes...)  I was really looking forward to talking with the crew after the mission about their experiences and ask them things like "were you surprised when we told you to do such-and-such?  What was your reaction when this-or-that happened?"  (For example when we told them to extinguish "Kelly," the incredible 81-minute flame ball.  Go to http://carambola.usc.edu/research/SOFBALL2quickie.html if you'd like to find out more about Kelly and the rest of the SOFBALL experiments.)

 

The SOFBALL experiment had flown in 1997 on the STS-83 and STS-94 missions, which also used the Columbia orbiter.  I was the backup astronaut for those missions.  I spent over a year going through all of the space flight training (in case either of the two scientists on the flight got sick or injured) but I didn't fly.  At some point during the mission it occurred to me, "what if the mission doesn't come back?  The press will ask me a lot of questions since I'm the nearest thing to a survivor."  I figured one question would be, "you wanted to be on this mission, do you still want to go into space?"  I would have answered, "If space flight is your passion, it's like auto racing or mountain climbing.  There are risks but you know that going in and you accept them.  Yes, I want to go on the next flight to finish the job my friends started."  While I wasn't a backup astronaut for this flight (the one that just crashed), I had really wanted to be on it and if I had an opportunity to fly on the next shuttle flight, I'd want to accept.

 

We did get some of our test results downlinked during the mission.  I would estimate our loss of science at about 50% of the total we would have gotten with a normal flight.  Many of the life science experiments needed their samples post-flight and so had nearly 100% loss.  Since science was the main objective of the flight, perhaps the crew would have been pleased to know that SOFBALL did get much of its science.

 

When I look at the notebook of graphs and the stack of CD-ROMs we produced from the downlinked data, I really start to feel guilty about what happened.  After all, SOFBALL was one of the most crew-intensive experiments on the flight.  They were flying largely to do my experiment.  It's as though 7 USC graduate students were killed in an accident in my laboratory.  That notebook and those CD-ROMs are their legacy.

 

I feel privileged to have known the crew and I will miss them very much.  Actually, the fact that they're gone hasn't sunk in yet.  I'm still looking forward to talking with Mike after the mission about Kelly.

 

 

Paul D. Ronney

Professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering

University of Southern California

Los Angeles, California, USA

Email:  ronney@usc.edu

Web page:  http://carambola.usc.edu

 

Instrumentation ring (part of the CM-2 combustion chamber) found among the Columbia debris (NASA photo).

CM-2 hard drive case found among the Columbia debris (NASA photo).

 

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