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.
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.
June 12, 2012
Inside a warehouse in Downey, California, a one-winged space shuttle sits underneath a blanket of Tyvek sheeting. It’s not a real space shuttle. Well, it sort of is? Let’s just say it played a real role in shuttle history.
While space museums around the country were competing fiercely to be the next home for Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour, and Enterprise, and even a couple months ago, when Houston was finally rewarded with the mock-up Explorer shuttle that used to greet space fans at Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Center, this unnamed shuttle in Southern California went largely unknown and un-fought for.
It’s a full-scale mock-up that was built in 1972 by Rockwell International (now Boeing) as part of the original space shuttle Request for Proposals process. When NASA awarded Rockwell the contract, the mock-up was kept on site and became the hands-on model for much of the shuttle’s design. Each time a new instrument was built, it was placed into the mostly plastic and wood panels to make sure it would fit properly with the existing structure. Model payloads were fitted in the cargo bay; it even has an aluminum (and non-functioning) Canadarm. The mock-up only has one wing because, of course, two would be redundant for a bird that wasn’t flying anywhere. Over the decades, this artifact lived the history of the space shuttle’s evolution.
The building where the shuttle sits now has an even longer aerospace history. The original hangars in Downey, just outside of Los Angeles, were where North American Aviation developed the P-51 Mustang and the XB-70 supersonic bomber. Later, when the company became North American Rockwell, they built the Apollo command module there. Boeing took over the facility during the shuttle years, and held the aerospace factory until 1999, when the Downey plant was closed. The next year, the city purchased the shuttle mock-up from NASA, and eventually sold the buildings and airfields to the Industrial Realty Group, which leased it to a film studio (which then built a six million-gallon fake lake on the property). IRG agreed to keep housing the shuttle, but it would have to be moved out of the way of the cameras.
The city of Downey enlisted a conservation company to undertake the relocation project. The mock-up was carefully disassembled, during which time it was discovered that it wasn’t just used for instrumentation upgrades during the shuttle fleet’s lifetime, but was also used to work out changes in the original design. From a report by Griswold Conservation Associates:
Evidence of previous configurations of the mock-up was revealed upon separation of the wing from the fuselage. Black and white paint configurations and other markings made with adhered striping tape suggested an earlier configuration, seen in an early photograph. Further research showed that the meeting point of the OMS system housings flanking the vertical stabilizer with the back end of the cargo bay door reflected an earlier version, later changed by NASA.
Fast forward another decade, and the property is changing hands yet again. The studio has closed, and because IRG plans to build commercial developments on the property, they’re insisting that the city finally take possession of the shuttle. The Downey City Council will meet tonight to finalize those plans, (according to a local paper, The Downey Beat), which includes relocating the shuttle to a storage facility at a nearby parking lot — also owned by IRG, which will lease the space for $1. Between $100,000 from IRG and a federal community development grant, the city wouldn’t have to cough up much to house the shuttle, at least in the first year. The Beat reports that IRG will lease the new site to the city for two years, and then the piece of aerospace history is going to need yet another home.
Where will it go then? The city of Downey could build a permanent structure for the shuttle and, since the mock-up isn’t a precious white-glove-only artifact like the three space-traveling orbiters, it could allow visitors to crawl around inside — which might make it worth visiting over its soon-to-be-neighbor Endeavour. Or they could probably make a bundle by offering it up to cities like Dayton, which desperately wanted an orbiter, but lost out in the competition.
What say you, Downey? What’s to become of this piece of American space history?
April 26, 2012
If the reaction of Washingtonians to last week’s space shuttle flyover is anything to go by, New Yorkers are in for a thrill.
Space shuttle Enterprise is scheduled to fly over New York City between 9:30 and 11:30 on Friday morning, riding on the back of a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft on its way from the National Air and Space Museum’s Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center to its new home at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum on the Hudson River. NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration won’t say exactly what the flight path will be, but they intend to fly over familiar landmarks like the Statue of Liberty (photo op!). These folks claim to have advance knowledge of the route, and offer advice on the best viewing spots.
Honestly, though, it didn’t much matter where you were standing in Washington last week. Discovery flew several slow loops over much of the metro area, and millions of people had the chance to get a close-up view, even if they hadn’t expected to. I had stationed myself on the roof of our office building, just a block off the National Mall (a prime spot!) when I got a call from my daughter Eleanor, on a school field trip about 30 miles south of the city. “Hey Dad, we just saw the space shuttle fly right over our bus!” What??!
It’s okay, I got a great view, too. And it’s a visual spectacle you should be sure to catch if you’re in New York tomorrow.
Washingtonians can now see Discovery for themselves on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center, or, if you really need to keep constant watch over it, bookmark this live webcam.
Also, the app-ized version of our Shuttle Collector’s Edition is now available on iTunes: The Space Shuttle Era: Stories From 30 Years of Exploration. For the iPad, we were able to add lots more photos and multimedia—including a spectacular time-lapse video of Discovery being prepared for launch—to the in-depth features and dozens of first-hand astronaut stories that appeared in the magazine version.
We did not, however, include this panoramic photo of Discovery and Enterprise together at the Udvar-Hazy Center, taken during last week’s ceremonies by photographer Mark Usciak of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Usciak had shot more than 40 shuttle launches over 30 years, starting with STS-1. So you know he had to be there for Discovery‘s retirement.
Update, Friday April 27, 9:56 a.m.
Enterprise is in the air, headed for New York.
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