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Shuttle Disaster

Shuttle 'what-ifs' hauntingly accurate

A wing breach, overheated wheel wells and sensor failures were debated at NASA.

©Associated Press

February 27, 2003


SPACE CENTER, Houston -- Mission Control's Jeffery Kling still had the sickened look of someone coping with tragedy.

His frightening predictions written in an e-mail just 24 hours before Columbia's destruction were what flight controllers call "what-iffing." Kling never thought the worst "what-if" scenario would come true. But to his astonishment and horror, it did.

[AP photo]
Reconstruction team members organize Columbia debris Wednesday in a hangar at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.

"When the events started unfolding, there was a little bit of disbelief right at first," said Kling, who was seated at the mechanical systems position in Mission Control as Columbia plunged through the atmosphere on Feb. 1.

He soon found himself asking: "What did I miss? What did we miss as a team?"

Kling met with a handful of reporters Wednesday evening, after NASA released a batch of internal e-mail messages from him and other flight controllers. The e-mails discussed what might happen to Columbia during re-entry if its left wing had been severely damaged by tank debris during liftoff.

Among the possibilities cited by the 43-year-old flight controller in an e-mail dated Jan. 31: a serious breach in the left landing gear compartment, possibly caused by exploding tires and the compartment door blowing open, that would raise concern about the integrity of the aluminum wing.

He went on to describe how temperatures in the wheel well would rise if superheated gases sneaked into the area, and how he and others would try to set up the shuttle for a bailout by the crew assuming the spaceship was low enough and "assuming the wing doesn't burn off before we get the crew out."

Kling, a slightly built man dressed meticulously in a brown checked shirt, artsy tie, dark slacks and polished loafers, was pale and visibly shaken as he spoke to reporters after a full day's work at Johnson Space Center. His voice was sometimes hushed and his eyes were directed down at the table in front of him.

Up until the moment Columbia started developing problems during descent, he was certain everything would be fine; he trusted the engineering analysis done by others that concluded the debris impacts barely a minute into the flight posed no safety concern.

He and his fellow controllers were so confident, in fact, that none of the "what-iffing" was relayed to Columbia's commander, Rick Husband. One scenario discussed in the e-mails was an attempted landing with tires ruptured by a surge in temperature, possibly caused by a hole in the wing.

"We did not relay that information to him because we did not expect it to happen," Kling said. "That thermal analysis said that there would be no burn-through and without burn-through, you won't damage tires, you won't even go through these things. This was just a mental exercise that we went through to what-if the whole thing."

The lead for the mechanical systems group and his boss, Robert Doremus, said none of the exchanges made it to upper management, either.

"You have to have something real and you really can't come forward with kind of what-if-type things unless you've got something solid to hang your hat on," Doremus said, adding that they had no concrete evidence anything was amiss with Columbia's thermal tiles.

Kling, who's handled a dozen shuttle entries, had no cue cards with him in Mission Control on landing morning, in case any of the nightmarish scenarios played out. His only reference was the e-mails, which he had at hand.

As it turned out, Kling was the first one in Mission Control to report trouble in the final minutes of Columbia's doomed flight.

As each set of sensors started going off-line -- and because it was all happening on the left side, where debris from the external fuel tank had struck 16 days earlier -- "you start playing back some of the things that you went through and wondering," Kling said.

He said the reality did not sink in until he saw the televised images of flaming wreckage falling from the sky over Texas.

After nearly a month of reflection, Kling said there is not much he or anyone else could have done to save Columbia and its seven astronauts, given the damage that the ship must have sustained somehow, somewhere, sometime during its flight.

"We had the proper teams in place to go do the thermal analysis to provide us the answers that we needed to go operate the vehicle," he said. "I had no reason to doubt the analysis. Nobody had brought new data up that said we needed to doubt it. So given the same situation, I would do exactly the same thing."

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