Remembering Columbia and Suffering from Survivor’s Guilt


Across the social networks today, many people were sharing their memories of the Columbia space shuttle accident, which happened 9 years ago, on February 1, 2003. Most all of us have a “where I was and what I was doing” story, but one of the most poignant posts today came from Michael Interbartolo, who works for NASA, and in 2003 was on the Guidance, Navigation, and Control (GNC) Flight Control team for the space shuttle. While he wasn’t in Mission Control when Columbia was lost, he still feels the pain of the accident each year when the anniversary date approaches.

“Every year I struggle with survivor’s guilt,” he wrote on Google+, “and wonder what if I had a time machine?”

In sharing an email he wrote just a few days after the accident, Interbartolo said, “I really feel like we lost 8 members of the family. Columbia was like the family dog who had gotten old, but she was still loyal and true and you knew you could count on her…It hurts to lose friends like this. I didn’t know any of them personally other than a meeting here and there or maybe in a sim together, but right now it feels like a big part of me is gone.”

Michael Interbartolo in Mission Control. Image courtesy of Michael Interbartolo

Interbartolo continued, expressing his love of his job: “To work here at mission control is a wonder each and every day and really is the stuff dreams are made of. For some this is just a job, others share my enthusiasm and love for the program, but everyone is dedicated 110% each day to bring each astronaut safely home every mission and when they don’t then we all feel the pain and anguish like right now.”

With February 1st here again, Interbartolo says he repeatedly goes through what he and others in Mission Control possibly could have done differently. “What if I could go back in time to try and save Columbia and her crew? Now with 9 years of experience since the accident, the Shuttle put out to pasture and no access to space on our own, changing that point in time almost seems more important.”

Interbartolo came up with four different scenarios of what possibly could happen if he had a time machine:

Debris from the space shuttle Columbia streaks across the sky near Tyler, Texas.

Scenario One – Day of Deorbit:

From the time the Entry team came on console to GO For deorbit burn, it is typically about 6 hours. So it would be the “12 Angry Men” scenario, bit by bit trying to convince the team to wave off the burn… Sure it would make for a tension filled movie, but reality is waving off the burn and convincing them to open the payload bay doors, activate the robotic arm and look solves nothing, probably. The crew would know they were dead; they could put the orbiter into a powerdown, but time would be short with limited consumables to come up with a repair that would work. In Hollywood movies sure, in real life? Too risky to use the Time Machine here, we need to go further back to ensure success.

A shower of foam debris after the impact on Columbia?s left wing. The event was not observed in real time. Credit: NASA

Scenario Two – Flight Day Two:

Images start coming in showing the foam strike, but as history has shown the management team was not listening and there were plenty of missed opportunities. So how could I convince them any better. It would take a few days, then get the DOD to use their assets to image the damage and if I hadn’t gotten the powerdown of the orbiter we still only have limited time plus how to repair? a Spacewalk is possible but we didn’t have wing leading edge or tile repairs kits until after the Columbia Accident so now we would have to come up with it on the fly probably stuffing maybe water bags, a space suit or something into the hole, cold soaking the wing and hope the turbulent boundary layer and plasma are kept at bay. time is short and this is still pretty risky and certainly a lot more engineering effort than fitting a square LiOH into a round hole (Apollo 13 issue). Need to go further back.

Columbia on the launchpad before the STS-107 mission. Credit: NASA

Scenario Three – PreLaunch No GO:

Where to jump in, foam had been an issue since STS-1 and was not seen as a concern. Heck even after Columbia we still had foam issues and had to redesign the Ice Frost Ramps and other bracket interfaces. Convincing the team to wave off prelaunch would require debris transport analysis to show foam could strike at high speed on the wings plus impact testing to show how much damage it would be. So now we grounded the fleet, worked on the foam, augmented ascent imagery assets/analysis, but we would still need a boom sensor, inspection techniques and repair options. A fundamental shift in how we do business and think about foam, something that only really happened because of Columbia, this would require overcoming the “Failure of Imagination” mindset. Hmm maybe we need to go back further.

Columbia landing at Edwards Air Force Base on the first shuttle mission, STS-1. Credit: NASA

Scenario Four – Designing the STS:

All the way back to the 70’s, reusable winged system side mounted on a big tank of foam that needed a 1500 nm cross range for once around polar DOD flights from Vandenburg. So it comes down to Only Nixon can save Columbia by scrapping the design and coming up with something else. If we can mitigate the foam loss or get away from fragile Reinforced Carbon Carbon wings in the danger zone then maybe Columbia could be saved (and maybe we can fix the O-ring and save Challenger as well). So now we trade 7 lives for 30 years of shuttle operations, launching telescopes/spacecraft, and building the space station. Could we come up with another heavy lift design that can go from rocket to space truck to orbiting space station to flying brick? This is the Kobayashi Maru for Time Traveler and the Space Shuttle Program, do I risk all the discoveries, knowledge, science and a space station by fundamentally changing the design to save Columbia? Maybe February 1st really is a Fixed Point in Time and Space.

In the end, Interbartolo said, there is no time machine; the Columbia and her crew are still lost, the Shuttle completes her mission of building the space station and now we have the gap of not being able to launch our own astronauts.

“There will be future loss of life in the pursuit of space because it is a harsh and unforgiving environment with objects travelling in excess of 17,500 mph and there will always be Unknown, Unknowns,” Interbartolo wrote. “But as Gus (Grissom)said, “The conquest of space is worth the risk,’ and through the tragedies of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia we are reminded that we must be vigilant and always attentive to the dangers of spaceflight; never accepting success as a substitute for rigor in everything we do. We must always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences. And finally we must recognize that the greatest error is not to have tried and failed, but that in the trying we do not give it our best effort.”

Universe Today thanks Michael Interbartolo for allowing us to share his memories and his grief.

4 Replies to “Remembering Columbia and Suffering from Survivor’s Guilt”

  1. Just like the generals ensconced safely behind the lines who have always given the orders that lead to the deaths of countless soldiers, so the executives of aerospace corporations and the administrators of NASA blithely gave the brash go-ahead that sent fourteen astronauts to their disastrous fate; ah, the privileged luxury of risking nothing except OTHERS lives!

    1. Just like? There’s a difference between flying what should have been a relatively safe orbital mission, and going into combat where you *know* that other people will be actively trying to kill you…

      And yes, in any major operation there will always be some kind of command, control, management, boss, whatever, that’s not out with the people they’re responsible for. You try to have those who will take that responsibility seriously, because it’s not possible to have it any other way. If you go, it only means someone *else* must call the shots from behind, instead.Until spaceships completely autonomous of any ground control are possible, that’s how it will be (and even *those* will likely be operating on behalf of someone back here…)

      1. There’s also quite a large certainty — and responsibility — gap between sending up shuttles without obvious flaws and those that have clearly-demonstrated shortcomings that are KNOWN to the powers that be. In both the Challenger and Columbia cases it was common knowledge among the engineering types AND the upper hierarchy of the shuttle builders that the problems and potential dangers of the imperfect O ring seals and the loose foam pieces respectively could result in a catastrophic failure of either and/or both shuttles. Knowing this, the manufacturers were STILL willing to give patently false reassurances to the NASA mission staff/chiefs regarding the allegedly insignificant nature of these aforementioned — and which turned out to be MAJOR and FATAL flaws — defects, and to their own everlasting shame those individuals at NASA who were charged with making the final “go/no go” determinations and decisions chose to ignore what should have been their own better judgment and went along with these flagrantly unprincipled recommendations in the interests of economic and chronological expediency, thereby knowingly putting the astronauts’ lives at terrible risk, with tragic consequences.

      2. There’s never going to be a perfect, completely safe vehicle for space travel – and the astronauts knew this as well. There will always be risks involved, no matter how you look at it. I doubt anyone blatantly neglected any of the risks involved.

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