February 1, 2013
Thinking back on the space shuttle Columbia accident, 10 years ago today, reminded me of a conversation I had back in 2010 with Pam Melroy, a former astronaut who had already left NASA by then. We were doing interviews for our special shuttle collectors edition, but later, when it was published, we weren’t able to include this particular story for some logistical reason. I was always sorry we left it out.
In all the national shock and grief over Columbia, and all the policy and technical discussions that followed, I never thought the astronauts at NASA got enough credit for their role in the investigation. They had just lost friends — the astronaut corps is a small, close-knit group — but there they were on national TV that same morning, fielding questions on what happened, and why, and who or what was to blame. It was a tough time for all of them.
In 2003 Melroy was working at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center as head of the small contingent of “Cape Crusader” astronauts that helps shuttle crews prepare for launch (she later became one of only two women to command a shuttle mission). After the accident she was assigned to the team that had the massive job of reconstructing Columbia from all the bits of debris collected by field workers in Texas.
Here’s how she remembered that time:
I was there at the Cape when it happened. So when [NASA] decided to have the vehicle reconstruction in Florida, they recollected that after Challenger, there had been a crew module reconstruction, and it was overseen by astronauts. They wanted an astronaut there to take over the reconstruction of the cockpit. It was, “Okay, Pam, you’re the lead Cape Crusader, go figure out what KSC needs.” After that I ended up taking over the lead for the crew module reconstruction.
We had set aside a small room in the hangar [where Columbia was being reconstructed], a corner room where a wall was built with a single door in it. The crew module reconstruction happened behind there. The reason was that it was extremely emotional and difficult for everyone. There was just no reason to expose 300 or 400 people working on the main part of the vehicle to look at all the parts. It’s just harder to look at the switch panels and all the things that the crew touched. There were personal items of the crew’s mixed in with the debris. It was very stressful for everyone, so the idea was that no one should have to look at it every day except this small group of people who were designated to do that.
Over the months that the reconstruction was happening, astronauts wound up in Florida for some business or another. Most of the folks in the office felt very strongly about going to see the reconstruction of the orbiter, to try to understand and to see it. I can’t think of anyone who was there to visit the orbiter who did not want to see the crew module. Everyone came in to see it. The feelings and the emotions were fairly universal as for the grief, but it was different things that triggered it in different people. One person would walk past the switch panels, but lock in on a checklist page. You could see them stop and be completely arrested. Someone else would stand in front of a switch panel for 20 minutes. For all of us, it was very personal. Whatever memories you had about your own spaceflight was what connected you to the debris.
I took the families on a tour through the reconstruction, the ones who chose to go. Eventually all the families did end up visiting, so I had the opportunity to talk to all of them. They’re all different. Some were technically driven, some were emotionally driven.
My military aviation training had led me to believe that every single thing was important. As I worked among the debris, I began to see things that I thought might be stories, or might pose questions. Why did the seats look like they did? Why did we get checklist pages back almost intact? I thought, “We could learn a lot from this.”
Later, after the primary investigation conducted by the CAIB [Columbia Accident Investigation Board], NASA started a crew survival investigation to understand what happened to the crew and their equipment, and I was the deputy project manager. Astronauts don’t typically get involved in leading this kind of investigation due to our other duties, but a combination of the fact that I had been involved in the reconstruction, and was the astronaut office point of contact for the stored debris made it important for me to be so engaged. It was a very, very personal thing for me.
Five years after the accident, the team’s crew survival report was published. You can read it here.
December 3, 2012
If you grew up near Bethpage, New York in the early 1960s, you probably were obsessed with the Apollo Lunar Module built by the Long Island-based Grumman Corporation. And if you were an extremely prescient teenager, you might have started amassing your own world-class collection of space-related items, including photographs, manuscripts, and prints.
This Wednesday, Bonhams is auctioning off one such private collection. In a video on Bonhams’ Website, the collector (who wishes to remain anonymous) explains that he grew up “during the height of the windup to the Apollo era,” just a few miles from Grumman, and many of the fathers in his neighborhood worked on the Lunar Module. “I was working towards a goal fairly early on,” he recalls in the video. “In my early- to mid-teens, what I wanted to do was to have an exhibition focusing on unmanned space travel.”
Many of the items are one-of-a kind. The lunar photomosaic above (see the full image here), was made as a five-foot-wide presentation piece in 1966, and was painstakingly assembled by Kay Larson of the U.S. Geological Survey using images captured by Surveyor 1. “I’m lucky to have found this—it would have been thrown in the trash, eventually,” the collector notes.
There are objects relating to Mars, Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter, but Earth’s moon is the centerpiece of this show. Some of the items predate the space age. One particularly lovely object is a photograph made up of four large-format quadrants of the moon, taken in 1899, and probably created for the 1900 Paris Exposition. The photogravures, by Pierre Henri Puiseux and Maurice Loewy, were taken at the Paris Observatory. “It was only with NASA’s Lunar Orbiters in the 1960s,” reads the collection note, “that images substantially better than those of Loewy and Puiseux were obtained.” The plates are from Puiseux and Loewy’s Atlas photographique de la lune. The two men were able to photograph the moon only during perfect weather, the catalog notes, which meant just 50 or 60 nights each year—explaining why the Atlas took 14 years to complete. These may be the first oversize plates from the Atlas to come up for auction, and are expected to bring $12,000 to $18,000.
British pastel portraitist John Russell (the appointed painter to the King and the Prince of Wales) was so fascinated with the moon that he created a lunar globe in 1797, which he called a Selenographia. Russell spent many years drawing and observing the moon; his globe even accounts for lunar motion, or libration. No more than 11 Selenographias are believed to exist; six are in public collections. This example, lot number 23, is expected to fetch between $200,000 to $300,000.
October 3, 2012
The Mercury astronauts, with their Corvette racing and drinking, were the apotheosis of Guy Culture, and their humor often stalled at about the seventh-grade level. Wally Schirra, especially, was a big fan of the practical joke, like the time he left a giant fake urine sample on astronaut nurse Dee O’Hara’s desk.
So 50 years ago today, during his Mercury Atlas 8 flight, it came as no surprise that fellow astronaut Deke Slayton, the “capsule communicator” in Mission Control, pulled a “gotcha” on Schirra.
The astronauts had a little game whereby if one asked “Are you a turtle?” the other had to answer “You bet your sweet ass I am!”, no matter how public the setting. Here’s a transcript of the air-to-ground conversation, a little over three minutes into the flight, with the whole world listening in. Schirra (P) is the pilot, and Slayton (CC) is the Capcom.
According to Schirra, “After splashdown, several of us were in the admiral’s quarters on the recovery ship, Kearsarge. Walt Williams, in his fast-chatter way of talking, demanded to know what my answer to Deke had been. I flipped on the flight recorder and there it was: ‘Wally are you a turtle?’ ‘You bet your sweet ass I am.’”
If it was all bathroom humor with the early astronauts, maybe they can be forgiven. The NASA doctors, who in those days were obsessed with learning every physiological reaction to spaceflight, allowed the astronauts very little privacy. An excerpt from a NASA medical report published after the MA-8 flight:
…No untoward sensations were reported by Astronaut Schirra, and the assigned inflight tasks were performed without difficulty. Specifically, he was not nauseated and did not vomit. Although the astronaut was never hungry during the flight, he ate the contents of two tubes containing food, one of peaches and the other of beef with vegetables, without difficulty. He experienced no urge to defecate during the mission, but he did report a moderate amount of inflight flatulence unaccompanied by eructation….
During the flight the pilot drank about 500 cc of water. He urinated three times before lift-off and three times during the flight, the last time just before retrofire. Bladder sensation and function were reported to be normal. Unfortunately, on landing, the urine collection device failed at its attachment to the body and all but 292 cc of the urine was lost.
October 1, 2012
When NASA retired its space shuttle fleet last year, the three flown orbiters — Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour — and the Enterprise atmospheric test vehicle all went to museums in big tourism markets: Washington, Orlando, Los Angeles, and New York, respectively.
That still left a few prize pieces of shuttle hardware for smaller venues, however. One of them — the Crew Compartment Trainer, or CCT-1, — is now at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. This was the high-fidelity mockup used by almost all shuttle crews for training.
Judging from this video, the Museum plans to turn it into quite an impressive exhibit, complete with a full-size payload bay and ramped walkways in the shape of wings.
Way to go, Ohio.
June 14, 2012
If anyone in Dayton or Seattle (or with a large backyard and a pipe-dream) got their hopes up about the mock-up shuttle in Downey, California, that needed a home, we have bad news: the city plans to keep it.
As we mentioned in an earlier post, the Downey city council met this week to decide the fate of an aerospace artifact that not many knew even existed. The mock-up orbiter was built by Rockwell/Boeing in 1972 as part of the shuttle contract process, and was used for the next couple of decades as a model “to help validate the size of items and rehearse wire runs for actual orbiter construction,” according to NASA public affairs officer Michael Curie. After the Boeing plant closed in 1999, the mock-up was moved to another building on the property to make room for a film studio, and has been sitting inside that small room ever since, covered in Tyvek sheeting, with its back-end spun around to fit in the space. Now that the property is being developed again, Downey needs to find a new — and with any luck, permanent — home for the shuttle.
On Tuesday, the city council agreed to move the mock-up to a temporary shelter in the parking lot of the Columbia Memorial Space Center, which is also owned by the city. (The new commercial development and the space center are on the same former 160-acre Boeing site, so the shuttle won’t be moving far.) They don’t want to take it apart piece-by-piece, as happened in 2003 when it was carefully examined and moved to its current location. But even in two large pieces it’s too big to fit through the door, so the plan is to remove an entire wall of the room to pull it out. With $100,000 from the developer and an additional $70,000 from the city, the center plans to erect fencing and a large tent for it, and hopes to allow visitors in to see it within the next couple of months, according to the center’s Executive Director, Scott Pomrehn.
We wanted to know a little more about the mock-up, so we spoke with some folks in Downey and at NASA to fill in some of this interesting space shuttle-era history.
According to Curie, when the Boeing plant closed, NASA decided to “abandon the shuttle in place,” thereby allowing the city of Downey to “inherit it.” There have, actually, been efforts to loan the mock-up out, and Pomrehn told us he has spoken with museums in San Diego and Colorado. But in the end, it’s considered too cost-prohibitive to move the mostly wooden orbiter any great distance. And to make it more difficult, as noted by the conservator in 2003 and recounted in a recent grant proposal by the space center:
Some deterioration processes are already underway. The outer skin of the shuttle, made of plywood on a wooden frame, is buckling slightly and showing signs of internal delamination. Paper components representing insulation or other lining of the sub-deck are disintegrating. Adhesive mounts and backing for a range of fasteners have become yellowed and embrittled. Delicate plastic components also appear to be degrading slightly. Clear plastic, prismatic ceiling panels have fine crazing cracks, and are starting to become detached at their fasteners.
The Columbia Memorial Space Center was established at the “former manufacturing site of the space shuttles” by Congress in 2004. By the time it was operating in 2009 — it is largely an educational venue for schoolchildren, featuring a Challenger Learning Center — the staff was hard at work trying to find ways to repair and house the shuttle mock-up. That year, they applied for a $700,000 grant from the National Park Service’s Save America’s Treasures program, but it was poor timing: it was the same year the program was de-funded by Congress. In the grant proposal, the center says the total cost of the shuttle’s preservation and restoration is $1,880,000, with about half needed for repair work, and half for a building to house it; the city would have provided the remaining funds.
We talked to Downey councilmember Deacon Mario Guerra over email, who told us the plan now is to keep the mock-up in the tented parking lot for about 18 months, which will give them time to find funding for an addition behind the space center — though he does note that they also remain “open to anything that will do it justice and preserve such a part of our legacy and that of our country.”
Director Pomrehn has ambitious hopes for funding sources. A few years ago, Tesla Motors, owned by SpaceX’s Elon Musk, considered moving into the old Boeing plant, but those plans fell through. Now, Pomrehn says, Musk “kind of owes us one…he knows of the significance of the site and the possibilities it has.” Pomrehn is “pretty confident” that SpaceX — whose headquarters are just 12 miles down the road in Hawthorne — will step up to fund the space center’s new building, which could house not just the mock-up but maybe a Dragon or two, as well.
And the cost of restoration might not be as high as once thought. Pomrehn has been tracking down the Rockwell/Boeing workers who built the mock-up in the early ’70s, and many of them are excited at the prospect of coming down to volunteer their services to fix up the shuttle and make it safe for visitors to climb inside. He’s also been talking to people at the California Science Center, 15 miles away in Los Angeles and the future home of Endeavour. Pomrehn would like to see the training for teachers and tour guides and anyone else involved in the celebration that will happen upon Endeavour‘s arrival later this year to happen at his space center. As he says, piggybacking on the excitement of the NASA orbiter’s arrival could boost hopes for the mock-up’s future.
Deacon Guerra is happy there are options for keeping the shuttle in Downey. “We are honored to have this mock-up of the shuttle,” he says. “It is a source of pride for our community and goes along with our amazing history of contribution to flight and space exploration.”
Asked if the city planned to give the mock-up a name, Guerra admitted, “I had never thought about it before, and I think that would be cool for us as a community to name it as we roll it out in the next few months.”
Sounds like residents of Downey will have some work on their hands this summer.
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