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Comm Check...: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia [Hardcover]

Michael Cabbage , William Harwood
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Jan. 27 2004 0743260910 978-0743260916

On February 1, 2003, the unthinkable happened. The space shuttle Columbia disintegrated 37 miles above Texas, seven brave astronauts were killed and America's space program, always an eyeblink from disaster, suffered its second catastrophic in-flight failure. Unlike the Challenger disaster 17 years earlier, Columbia's destruction left the nation one failure away from the potential abandonment of human space exploration. Media coverage in the immediate aftermath focused on the possible cause of the disaster, and on the nation's grief. But the full human story, and the shocking details of NASA's crucial mistakes, have never been told -- until now.

Based on dozens of exclusive interviews, never-before-published documents and recordings of key meetings obtained by the authors, Comm Check takes the reader inside the conference rooms and offices where NASA's best and brightest managed the nation's multi-billion-dollar shuttle program -- and where they failed to recognize the signs of an impending disaster. It is the story of a space program pushed to the brink of failure by relentless political pressure, shrinking budgets and flawed decision making. The independent investigation into the disaster uncovered why Columbia broke apart in the sky above Texas. Comm Check brings that story to life with the human drama behind the tragedy.

Michael Cabbage and William Harwood, two of America's most respected space journalists, are veterans of all but a handful of NASA's 113 shuttle missions. Tapping a network of sources and bringing a combined three decades of experience to bear, the authors provide a rare glimpse into NASA's inner circles, chronicling the agency's most devastating failure and the challenges that face NASA as it struggles to return America to space.


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About the Author

Michael Cabbage is the space editor for the Orlando Sentinel. Before that, he wrote for Florida Today and the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He has covered more than 40 shuttle missions and written about spaceflight on three continents. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2001/2002.

Bill Harwood has been the Senior Space Consultant for CBS News since 1992. For the previous decade he was Cape Canaveral Bureau Chief for UPI. He also covers space exploration for The Washington Post and Astronomy Now magazine. He lives in Merritt Island, Florida. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter One: Re-Entry

Looks like a blast furnace.

-- Shuttle commander Rick Husband, midway through re-entry

Plunging back to Earth after a 16-day science mission, the shuttle Columbia streaked through orbital darkness at 5 miles per second, fast enough to fly from Chicago to New York in two and a half minutes and to circle the entire planet in an hour and a half. For Columbia's seven-member crew, the only hint of the shuttle's enormous velocity was the smooth clockwork passage of entire continents far below.

Commander Rick Husband knew the slow-motion view was misleading, a trick of perspective and the lack of anything nearby to measure against the craft's swift passage. He knew the 117-ton shuttle actually was moving through space eight times faster than the bullet from an assault rifle, fast enough to fly the length of 84 football fields in a single heartbeat.

And Husband knew that in the next 15 minutes, the shuttle would shed the bulk of that unimaginable speed over the southwestern United States, enduring 3,000-degree temperatures as atmospheric friction converted forward motion into a hellish blaze of thermal energy. It had taken nearly 4 million pounds of rocket fuel to boost Columbia and its crew into orbital velocity. Now the astronauts were about to slam on the brakes.

For Husband, a devout Christian who put God and family ahead of his work as an astronaut, flying this amazing machine home from space was a near religious experience in its own right, one he couldn't wait to share with family and friends gathered at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He had served as pilot on a previous shuttle flight, but this was his first as commander, and in the world of shuttle operations, it's the commander who actually lands the spacecraft.

He relished the opportunity. But his life as an astronaut took a backseat to his deep faith in God. Before blasting off on his second space flight as commander of Columbia, he videotaped 34 Bible lessons for his two kids, one each for the 17 days he would be away from home.

"The space shuttle is by far the most complex machine in the world," he had told his hometown church congregation three years earlier. "When you think about all the thousands of people it took to sit down and design this machine -- the main engines, auxiliary power units, the hydraulics, the flight control systems, the reaction control jets, the solid rocket boosters, the external tank that fuels the main engines, the crew compartment with all the controls and all the time that was spent to put this thing together and make it work -- it's to me inconceivable that you could take a look at the universe and think that it all just happened by accident.

"And inside that vehicle are seven astronauts, each one of which is more complex than this vehicle we went up in," he continued. "And God is an awesome God."

Looking over his cockpit instruments as he prepared Columbia for entry, the 45-year-old Air Force colonel chatted easily with his crewmates, coming across more as an older brother than as the skipper of a $3 billion spacecraft. But underneath the friendly camaraderie was the steady hand of a commander at ease with leadership and life-or-death responsibility.

"People have characterized him as a laid-back guy, easy-going," said entry flight director LeRoy Cain, who shared Husband's deep religious convictions. "But a lot of that was based in his faith, realizing our time here is limited and ultimately the real goal is to have that relationship with your maker. And he had that and he wanted to share that in a way that wasn't intrusive or offensive. And that's the biggest reason this crew gelled so well together."

Husband was also the first pilot since the astronaut class of 1984 to be given a shuttle command on his second mission. Kent Rominger, chief of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's astronaut corps and commander of Husband's first mission, said Husband "came out of that flight with a really strong reputation. Rick worked hard, did a really good job, was a great leader. He was a really gifted pilot."

So good, in fact, that data tapes charting his every move at the controls of NASA's shuttle training aircraft were frequently used to show other pilots how a textbook approach and landing should be flown.

"This is Mission Control, Houston. Columbia's altitude is now 90 miles above the Pacific Ocean to the north of the Hawaiian Islands, about two minutes away from entering the Earth's atmosphere," said NASA commentator James Hartsfield, his words carried around the world by satellite over NASA's television network. "All activities continuing to go smoothly en route toward a touchdown at the Kennedy Space Center at 8:16 A.M. Central time."

Getting to Columbia's flight deck hadn't been easy for Husband, who grew up dreaming about one day flying in space.

"I've wanted to be an astronaut all my life, ever since I was about four years old," he once said. "It was the only thing I could think about wanting to do."

So he planned his education and a military career with that single goal in mind.

After graduating from high school in 1975, the boy from Amarillo enrolled at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, a two-hour drive, where he earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1980. There, he fell in love with Evelyn Neely, who, like Husband, had grown up in Amarillo. The two were married in their hometown at First Presbyterian Church. Now, 20 years later, the couple had two children, a 12-year-old daughter, Laura, and a 7-year-old son, Matthew.

The first seven years after his college graduation included an endless procession of Air Force bases, where he learned to fly the F-4 fighter and eventually became so good at it he was promoted to instructor. In 1987, he was assigned to the legendary test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California's Mojave Desert. As an Amarillo schoolboy, he had built models of the flame-belching missiles that catapulted his heroes into orbit. Now, here at the same place where Chuck Yeager had broken the sound barrier, Husband proved he also had the right stuff.

But that wasn't enough.

By the time he arrived at Edwards, Husband already had applied to be an astronaut once and had been turned down. That was just prior to the explosion of the shuttle Challenger in 1986, and NASA ultimately canceled all new astronaut hires. Husband applied again afterward and was turned down a second time. Realizing NASA wanted astronaut candidates with advanced degrees, he went back to school at Fresno State University and earned a master's degree in mechanical engineering. The third time around, he got as far as the Johnson Space Center in Houston for a week of interviews and tests. Worried he might not pass the physical this time because of his eyesight, he wore contact lenses and lied about that on the application. He passed the physical, but again, the answer was no.

In the meantime, Husband drew an assignment as an exchange pilot with Britain's Royal Air Force in 1992 and shipped off to Boscombe Down, England, where he helped test a variety of new aircraft. He prayed for guidance on what he should do.

"God showed me that lying certainly was not the kind of thing that a Christian is supposed to do," he reflected in 2000. "When it came time for me to fill out the application a fourth time, I felt the strongest prompting from God to tell the truth. In studying the Bible more, I had come across Proverbs 3:5-6 that says, 'Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.'

"It was as if God was saying 'Just trust me! You lied last time and didn't make it. Try telling the truth this time and see what happens.' Finally, I had come to the point where I understood what it meant to give my life to God and to trust Him. I said, 'OK, Lord. I want to do what You want me to do, and it doesn't matter if I'm an astronaut or something else.' "

This time he told the truth and was invited to begin training at Johnson in December 1994. But despite his obvious skills in the cockpit, it would be another five years before he was assigned to his first mission. Only two other members of the 20-member astronaut class known as Group 15 waited longer.

"A lot of people didn't know that Rick was one of the last people to fly in his class," said Dave Pitre, an astronaut trainer assigned to Columbia's mission. "And I don't know the reason why, because I think Rick's a great guy. But this is what I speculate.

"You look at his résumé and he's the best. But he's so unassuming. And on the sixth floor [of the astronaut office], there's a lot of competition to be the best, to do the best. There's a lot of jockeying. Rick wouldn't do that, he never did that. He let his actions speak for himself. So he just sat there patiently in line and waited, and waited, and waited. I think he just wanted to make a statement and so they all tried just so hard, I mean, every training session you just got the feeling these guys were putting out 110 percent all the time. Everybody had something to prove on that flight and I think it just bonded them all together."

"Columbia is currently targeted toward runway 33 at the Kennedy Space Center; the runway selection continues to be discussed here in Mission Control, however. But for its approach to runway 33, Columbia will perform a right overhead turn to align with the runway of about 214 degrees."

Preparations for the shuttle's arrival at Kennedy were in full swing. The landing support team, made up of engineers and technicians required to deactivate critical systems after touchdown, had gathered at dawn to go over their plans and to prepare their equipment. They were stationed at the northwest end of the broad, 3-mile-long Shuttle Landing Facility runway, expecting Columbia to come in from the southeast.

Shortly after sunrise, buses, limousines, and a fleet of spo... --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
Plunging back to Earth after a 16-day science mission, the shuttle Columbia streaked through orbital darkness at 5 miles per second, fast enough to fly from Chicago to New York in two and a half minutes and to circle the entire planet in an hour and a half. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very enlightening July 9 2004
Format:Hardcover
I have no reservations in recommending this book to anyone who wants to learn more about the Columbia disaster. This book isn't "technical," in the sense of giving lots of equations etc. Rather it gives a thorough non-technical, managerial, and cultural description of events.
All of this book's sections are well written, and fit into a cohesive whole. There's the required section describing how things unfolded on that awful morning. The authors also describe the doomed members of Columbia's crew, and the unusually long period of training and delays they had to go through to get to space in the first place. This gives a glimpse into the space station and shuttle politics within NASA, and also gives a real human touch to the tragedy. Esp. with details such as Rick Husband's decision to make Kalpana Chawla the flight engineer, helping her to redeem her career as an astronaut after an earlier mistake.
There's background from previous flights to set the stage, esp. the near-catastrophic foam strike on Atlantis, 2 flights before Columbia. This section shows NASA's inadequate response on a past flight, which then leads into the description of the debris assessment team's work during Columbia's mission. I found this section particularly enlightening, and I could relate very much to it, working in a large organization myself. All too understandable, and thus even more frustrating.
The work of the CAIB is described more in broad-brush strokes, since it took place over a much longer period. But its points are well taken. NASA's organization repeated the mistakes of Challenger, despite some very good work on some other safety concerns with the shuttle. The author's give a blow-by-blow account of how Columbia came apart in this section, which is gripping reading.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "No, not again! It can't be!" June 19 2004
Format:Hardcover
A great first telling of the Columbia disaster. The authors interviewed a score of persons involved at some point with the shuttle program, and seemingly spared no one's feelings, regardless of the access they were given. We share the sinking dread of the junior engineers as they watch the foam strike, and are then denied photos of the orbiter by senior management from military surveillance vehicles. And then comes the awful moment, to observers across the country, in Houston, and at NASA, when disaster strikes...
The final report of the investigative board saw little hope for NASA to effectively manage the shuttle program at the levels of quality control that the program required. So the macro problem was not a case of sub-par people doing sub-par work, but of normal people doing normal work. For the most complex machine ever invented, normal wasn't good enough. Bureaucratic inertia would build up over time, trumping any system of feedback and cross-checks. People in any organization eventually come to see what they expect to see, swamping the efforts of those individuals who strive to "pound a problem flat."
Ultimately of course, if everyone is to blame then no one is to blame. Every snowflake in an avalanche can plead "not guilty". That, plus the creeping obsolescence of the shuttle design and components led the investigative board to recommend replacing the shuttle altogether. Does this mean the end of manned space flight from America? I personally hope so. We've learned so much more from projects like Voyager, Hubble, Chandra, and the like than from using the shuttle to put some elementary school's bean sprout dixie cup gardens into orbit. But I suspect that the general public will not support the space program unless they have live astronauts to cheer for. So, who knows what will come next. For now, this book is a thorough, and thought-provoking account of what everyone hopes will be the final shuttle disaster.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars SpaceFan May 12 2004
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
I just finished reading Comm Check and while I found little new beyond the news reports, I thought it was an excellent narrative about the Columbia accident. I admit I was skeptical about a book written by news reporters because they have a tendency to sensationalize things to the point that it is no longer factually accurate. However this was not the case with Cabbage and Harwood, a pleasant surprise. I would highly recommend this book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Complete and accurate, relatively high level Feb. 21 2004
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
I read this book in three evenings. The authors -- two of the best in space journalism -- did an outstanding job of retelling the story of the final flight of Columbia. If you followed the news closely after the disaster you will not find too many new revelations in this book. What you will find is a high level, but gripping narrative similar to going back and re-reading all the news papers from February 1, 2003 onward, but with the advantage of perfect hindsight. The book is necessarily high level. What do I mean by that? A lot of detail had to be left out. For instance, a book this size could be written on the recovery efforts alone. A book this size could be written on the foam impact testing alone. On the work of the CAIB alone. And so on. (And those would all be very interesting books -- especially on the recovery efforts; do you know how often the volunteers encountered 6 ft long water moccasins?)
Other reviews are right -- there is no NASA-bashing. It is a fair and unbiased retelling of the story, as you'd expect from people like Bill Harwood and Mike Cabbage. Its impact lies in having the whole story told all at once. It's a lot to take in. The gravity of the disaster hits the reader pretty hard, especially when reading the theory of exactly how the shuttle disintegrated, stage by stage. The authors were vivid but at no time disrespected the lost crew or their families.
I highly recommend this book. Below is the table of contents:
1 Re-Entry
2 Preparations
3 "Safe to Fly with No New Concerns"
4 Launch
5 A Shot in the Dark
6 Mixed Signals
7 Disaster
8 Aftermath
9 Echoes of Challenger
10 Re-Entry Revisited
11 Returning to Flight
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