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Launch on Need is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

No part of this publication may be reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews.

Copyright © 2010 by Daniel Guiteras

All rights reserved.

ISBN 978-0-615-37221-1

E-Book ISBN: 978-1-4392-8965-5

Published in the United States by T-Cell Books

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 ignition!

Printed in the United States of America

Cover photo credit: NASA/Diametric Gerondidakis

In Memoriam

The Crew of Columbia, STS-107

Rick D. Husband   CommanderWilliam C. McCool   PilotMichael P. Anderson   Payload CommanderDavid M. Brown   Mission SpecialistKalpana Chawla   Mission SpecialistLaurel Blair Salton Clark   Mission SpecialistIlan Ramon   Payload Specialist

Columbia Debris Search Team

Jules F. Mier, Jr.

Debris Search Pilot

Charles Krenek

Debris Search Aviation Specialist

The crew members lost that morning were explorers in the finest tradition, and since then, everyone associated with the Board has felt that we were laboring in their legacy. Ours, too, was a journey of discovery: We sought to discover the conditions that produced this tragic outcome and to share those lessons in such a way that this nation’s space program will emerge stronger and more sure-footed. If those lessons are truly learned, then Columbia’s crew will have made an indelible contribution to the endeavor each one valued so greatly.

(Excerpt from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s Opening Statement.)

Columbia Payload Configuration for STS-107

NASA graphic, CAIB Report Vol. I, Page 31

For Lisa, Caitlyn and Emily

The three brightest stars

in my universe


Title Page

Copyright Page

In Memoriam


Part I The Discovery

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Part II The Challenge

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Part III The Endeavor

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Chapter 71

Chapter 72

Chapter 73

Chapter 74

Chapter 75

Chapter 76

Chapter 77

Chapter 78

Chapter 79





ON THE MORNING of Feb. 1, 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia’s international crew of seven astronauts, having spent 16 highly productive days in space, were finally ready to come home. So, to begin their one-hour journey from orbit to Earth, Columbia’s commander and pilot prepared the reentry software and positioned Columbia for a de-orbit burn. Then, at 8:15 A.M. E.S.T. during Columbia’s 255th orbit, they executed a burn lasting precisely two minutes and 38 seconds. The crew was set to touch down at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 9:15 A.M. E.S.T.

Engineers and managers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Mission Control were monitoring what seemed like a typical reentry, when suddenly Columbia’s left wing sensors began to fail. First, four hydraulic sensors in the left wing failed; then, five minutes later, both left main landing-gear tires lost pressure. Seventeen seconds later at 8:59:32 A.M. E.S.T., the final transmission from the crew was heard. The crew and space plane were lost. Columbia had been just 16 minutes from home.

Less than two hours after Mission Control lost contact with Columbia, NASA officials formed the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. The Board’s mission was to identify the physical and organizational causes of the accident. It spent more than six months analyzing Columbia’s flight data, conducting interviews of key NASA personnel and space shuttle contractors, and reviewing communications between NASA personnel.

The Board also enlisted the help of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which directed over 250 organizations and more than 25,000 workers on a foot search of Columbia’s debris field. The field spanned an area of over 700,000 acres from east Texas to western Louisiana. FEMA alone spent over $305 million on the search. When the search concluded, 38 percent of Columbia’s dry weight had been recovered.

In August 2003, the Board released its findings in the “Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) Report.” The report is comprehensive, covering the history of the Space Shuttle Program, the objectives of Columbia’s final mission, astronaut training, accident analysis, key e-mail communications between NASA personnel during the mission and, finally, detailed recommendations to NASA for preventing another accident. The entire CAIB report can be downloaded at no cost from the government’s dedicated CAIB Web site,

The CAIB report is concise, often fascinating, often technical, and frequently heartrending. It succeeds in explaining the complex interplay between NASA management and engineering staff. Despite the vast depth and breadth of the report, a few key points are worth summarizing in order to provide sufficient background to the reader about what actually happened to Columbia.

As to the physical cause of the accident the CAIB concluded this:

The loss of Columbia and its crew was a breach in the Thermal Protection System on the leading edge of the left wing. The breach was initiated by a piece of insulating foam that separated from the left bipod ramp of the External Tank and struck the wing in the vicinity of the lower half of Reinforced Carbon-Carbon panel 8 at 81.9 seconds after launch. During re-entry, this breach in the Thermal Protection System allowed superheated air to penetrate the leading-edge insulation and progressively melt the aluminum

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