New Book Hails Lost Columbia Shuttle Astronauts
By John Kelly
posted: 15 February 2006
6:02 p.m. ET
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - A couple days into Columbia's final mission,
freelance writer Philip Chien realized only a handful of reporters were
still covering the science being performed by the shuttle's crew of
Chien, who lives on Merritt Island, watched reporters flock to Kennedy
Space Center from all over the world to watch Columbia launch into
orbit Jan. 16, 2003. Then, he watched the media rush back here and to
Johnson Space Center after the orbiter broke up 16 days later during
Journalists penned thousands upon thousands of words about the fateful
events during Columbia's launch, the questionable decision-making in
Houston during the flight and the fatal burn-through of the orbiter's
heat-shield in the atmosphere.
Chien did not see or read much about the personalities of the
astronauts or the work they had accomplished in orbit. So, Chien
decided he would try to tell that story himself.
The result is the newly released book, Columbia: Final Voyage, an
account that deals sparingly with the shuttle accident and the details
of its investigation but instead focuses on the people behind the
mission and the legacy of their work.
"The whole object of the book is to take the two-dimensional bios and
make them into three-dimensional people," said Chien, who will talk
tonight at Brevard Community College's Planetarium about the new book
and the Columbia mission.
Such astronaut profiles are a big part Chien's journalistic niche to
begin with. As a freelance journalist who's seen more than 100 shuttle
launches, Chien usually pens feature stories about individual
astronauts for the crew members' hometown newspapers.
In this case, Chien determined the best way to tell the story of the
Columbia astronauts and their mission was to go back over all of the
science experiments they were working on during the 16-day flight.
Chien began cataloging all of the historical data and information he
could about the seven members of the crew and the experiment roster for
"This is the legacy that is most important for the astronauts," Chien
said. "They gave their lives for the science."
The research, when combined with interviews with family, colleagues and
scientists, results in what may be the most detailed account that will
ever be written about what happened in space during the mission.
"This is an important book on the shuttle," Chien said, because it
covers ground not explored by others post-disaster. "I hope that 20 or
30 years from now, people are still going to be referring to this book
when they talk about the mission."
The research and writing took nearly three years. The book came out
Feb. 1, and Chien said he has gotten positive reviews from astronauts'
relatives and others who've read it.
The biggest surprise during his research?
"The biggest thing is the science that's still being performed," Chien
Experiments and recorded data survived the violent re-entry accident
and were recovered by the extensive search for debris in Texas.
Still more data had been beamed back to Earth during the mission.
There is usable information for scientists and papers have appeared in
peer-reviewed journals based on research performed by the Columbia
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TODAY. No portion of this material may be reproduced in any way without
the written consent of FLORIDA TODAY.
I just picked up "Columbia - Final Voyage" from Barnes and Noble and
it's fascinating reading, a lot of insight into the mission and crew.
It really amazese me how much access Philip Chien must have had to
write this book. What I hated most about the Columbia documentaries
which have appeared so far is they contain the pre-canned NASA
interviews which everybody's seen hundreds of times and interviews with
a bunch of folks who knew the astronauts - just second hand
information. The only exception was "Astronaut Diaries" which was
primarily video which was shot by astronaut Dave Brown.
In contrast Chien's book includes some amazing quotes and personal
thoughts from each of the astronauts, the author must have truly known
some of them well. In addition he's got a lot of behind-the-scenes
stuff on the science which I had never heard about.
The book is primarily about the crew and mission, but does include a
bit on the accident and the behind-the-scenes stuff in Mission Control
during the mission.
With all of the sci.space.shuttle discussions after the accident I
guess I automatically assumed that if MCC had agreed to ask the
military to take photos of Columbia with a spy satellite it would have
made a difference. But now that I've read the "Behind the Scenes"
chapter I've done a 180 turn-around. While Chien agrees that the
Mission Controll managers should have asked for the spy satellite
photos whether or not the managers thought they would have provided any
additional information, he also says that it's far from certain that
the photos would have had enough resolution or contrast to determine
whether or not the damage was serious or not. In addition the
information would have come too late for any reasonable rescue scenario
to have worked. But on the third hand he doesn't let the Mission
Management Team off the hook. Chien argues that they should have gone
to more effort to encourage communications with the lower level
engineers and should have gone to more effort to determine what had
happened. In other words - had the MMT done everything they should have
done after launch - they would have known that Columbia was doomed, but
the end results would have been the same anyway.
What I found most insightful was a quote from Wayne Hale that had
STS-107 been delayed two weeks more it would have happened with him in
charge of the MMT, and he says he would have made the same decisions
Linda Ham made for the same reasons and with the same results.
The John Kelly "Florida Today" interview mentions one of the more
amazing chapters in the book, the science which is still possible. I
was amazed to find out that not only did much of the science survive,
but much of it was able to still produce usable science. In particular
I was shocked that off-the-shelf widgets which record temperature
readings continued to record data through the accident - and even
afterwards until their batteries ran out. Hmm, who needs mil-spec when
off-the-shelf electronics can survive a 38 mile fall.
In any case the book is a fascinating read, and from what the Barnes
and Noble clerk said the author's going to be at that store (Merritt
Island Florida) this Saturday to sign copies of the book. I'll
certainly be there, I've got plenty of questions I'd like to ask him
about the book.
I just picked up "Columbia - Final Voyage" from Barnes and Noble and
> I just picked up "Columbia - Final Voyage" from Barnes and Noble and
> it's fascinating reading, a lot of insight into the mission and crew.
> It really amazese me how much access Philip Chien must have had to
> write this book.
Phil Chien really was one of the only reporters to cover the mission. I
remembered during the flight thinking that only a few reporters were
showing up for the daily briefings, him, somebody from Florida Today,
the Associated Press, and maybe one or two other reporters. Even Bill
Harwood, who normally puts out several of his excellent CBS Space Place
newsletters barely covered the flight. Certainly Jim Oberg and the
other reporters who frequent sci.space.shuttle never showed up for any
of the on-orbit briefings during STS-107.
> What I hated most about the Columbia documentaries
> which have appeared so far is they contain the pre-canned NASA
> interviews which everybody's seen hundreds of times and interviews with
> a bunch of folks who knew the astronauts - just second hand
> information. The only exception was "Astronaut Diaries" which was
> primarily video which was shot by astronaut Dave Brown.
Agreed. Anybody can write a story after a disaster talking to relatives
and friends. But who can say that they actually talked to the STS-107
crew and knew them? It's almost the equivalent of somebody who knew
the pilots of all four planes hijacked on 9-11 (although of course with
less impact because of far fewer lives lost and far less change to the
nation as a whole due to the consequences).
> With all of the sci.space.shuttle discussions after the accident I
> guess I automatically assumed that if MCC had agreed to ask the
> military to take photos of Columbia with a spy satellite it would have
> made a difference. But now that I've read the "Behind the Scenes"
> chapter I've done a 180 turn-around. While Chien agrees that the
> Mission Controll managers should have asked for the spy satellite
> photos whether or not the managers thought they would have provided any
> additional information, he also says that it's far from certain that
> the photos would have had enough resolution or contrast to determine
> whether or not the damage was serious or not.
Agreed. It amazes me how many of the sci.space.shuttle folks still
insist - as if it was without a doubt - that if the MMT acted any
differently the crew would have been saved. They come up with these
mythical spy satellites with far greater resolution which happen to be
in the exact correct place at the correct moment, they assume that even
if somehow a risky, never tried before EVA by two people who had never
done an EVA and only had minimal EVA equipment (no SAFER, no helmetcam,
no digital cameras which could work on a spacewalk) was performed that
the EVA astronauts could give enough of a verbal description to give
MCC the data they needed to determine whether or not Columbia was safe
or at risk, etc. etc. etc.
> The John Kelly "Florida Today" interview mentions one of the more
> amazing chapters in the book, the science which is still possible. I
> was amazed to find out that not only did much of the science survive,
> but much of it was able to still produce usable science. In particular
> I was shocked that off-the-shelf widgets which record temperature
> readings continued to record data through the accident - and even
> afterwards until their batteries ran out. Hmm, who needs mil-spec when
> off-the-shelf electronics can survive a 38 mile fall.
The science which survived was what amazed me the most after reading
Phil's book. There were a small number of stories after the accident
about the science which was radioed to Earth during the mission and
some of the payloads which were recovered, but that was about it. To
find out that living creatures (moss and worms) survived and provided
usable science, computer hard drives and memory cards could be
recovered, and other science could still be performed was amazing.
Alex, I hope you've got the CD-ROM, Phil gave me a copy and it's pretty
amazing. There's an entire postflight science report which NASA's
microgravity sciences department put out (a bit jumbled - it looks like
each scientist was asked to submit something and some did and some
didn't). I searched for it on the web but couldn't find it - I'm rather
amazed that NASA didn't put out a press release when that report was
issued a year ago.
> In any case the book is a fascinating read, and from what the Barnes
> and Noble clerk said the author's going to be at that store (Merritt
> Island Florida) this Saturday to sign copies of the book. I'll
> certainly be there, I've got plenty of questions I'd like to ask him
> about the book.
Enjoy talking to him, he's a nice guy.
> > In any case the book is a fascinating read, and from what the Barnes
> > and Noble clerk said the author's going to be at that store (Merritt
> > Island Florida) this Saturday to sign copies of the book. I'll
> > certainly be there, I've got plenty of questions I'd like to ask him
> > about the book.
> Enjoy talking to him, he's a nice guy.
I got to go to the book signing in Barnes and Noble and it was
fascinating. When I arrived Philip Chien was talking to this kook who
insisted that there were other reasons for the Challenger accident.
Phil treated the guy politely enough and explained - patiently - that
his book was about Columbia, not Challenger. Not sure the guy
The next guy in line was one of the NASA mid level managers mentioned
in the book, Scott Thurston. He and Phil obviously knew each other and
they talked about their almost identical experiences on the day of the
accident. Apparently they were about 20 feet from each other at the
viewing area and both came to the same conclusions based on the same
data - loss of comm through TDRSS no big deal. But when capcom Charlie
Hobaugh called "Comm check on UHF" great concern because that was a
totally separate radio and how could two radios go bad. Then the final
confirmation - lack of C-Band tracking. Phil was telling Scott that the
most surreal portion was how the public affairs announcements made no
indications that anything was wrong and so many members of the press
and newbies, epsecially among the VIPs didn't realize anything was
wrong. That explains how some of the press innocently broadcast that
the shuttle was late for landing, not realizing the significance of
I still recall being in my dorm room and wondering why I didn't hear
the sonic booms in Orlando. We don't always hear the booms depending on
the weather conditions and the path the shuttle's taking so I wasn't
concerned. But then I heard Christopher Glenn on CBS radio report that
the shuttle was late and realized that something really strange had
happened because there was no way a shuttle could be 'late' and went
online and found out what had happened.
I talked to Phil for about 15 minutes and he had some fascinating
things to say about the 107 crew, he really did know them well. I told
him how much I appreciated that his book concentrated on the people and
the mission and not as much on the accident.
We did talk a little about the accident and Phil said that his biggest
annoyance is the myths and half truths which are spread by the media
and others. I was surprised that he was saying bad things about the
media, but he noted that there are many in the media who are more
interested in telling a sensational story to get lots of viewers than
telling the truth. He said specifically he was annoyed at those who
imply that if the MMT had listened to the requests that a spy satellite
be used to take photos of Columbia that it would automatically mean the
crew would, or even could have been saved. He said that even if the spy
satellite photos were taken, and even if they had enough resolution to
absolutely determine that Columbia was doomed, it would all have to
happen extremely early in the mission for any rescue scenario outside
of a Hollywood movie to work. It gave me some interesting things to
think about, especially after all of the sci.space.shuttle discussions
where the difficulties Phil mentioned were just glossed over or
The other interesting topic was the top to bottom problems within NASA
- Phil acknowledged that they existed and contributed to the miindset
of the workers which contributed to the decision at the STS-113 flight
readiness review to continue flying. However he strongly disagrees with
the CAIB's comments that the reason for that decision was the schedule
pressure to finish space station in February 2004. He noted that with
just as much pressure to keep the shuttle flying the decision was made
in June 2002 to ground the entire fleet because fo the flowliners and
his belief is that NASA just didn't recognize that falling foam was a
potential for fataling damaging the shuttle.
He told me that in all of the efforts by the CAIB to find mismanagement
and faults within NASA they only found one key item where somebody made
a conscious decision to intentionally reduce safety, and that was the
2001 KSC decision to redefine "operational FOD" as acceptable since it
would increase the contract awards to United Space Alliance. (normally
Foreign Object Debris is considered unacceptable and a penalty to a
contract, but KSC redefined FOD as two categories - flight equipemnt
FOD (which was still considered unacceptable) and other FOD (which
didn't affect contract awards). He didn't say it outright but I got the
impression that if had it his way, the mangers who proposed the changes
to the FOD rules, and the higher level mangers who approved those
changes should be put up on criminal charges for intentionally
consciously reducing safety within the shuttle program. Phil said he
would have liked to have gone into that matter more in the book but he
wanted the book to concentrate on the STS-107 crew and their mission,
not on the accident. He did refer me to his website which he said
included his thoughts on the limitations in the accident investigation
and where they didn't get it right.
In any case I finished reading the book before I went to the book
signing and I'm glad I had the opportunity to tell him how much I liked
it and I got a CD-ROM from him which I'm going to check out this week.
I told him how grateful I was that he wrote the book and it really
helped make me feel like I knew the STS-107 crew much better.
Hail Columbia, Rick, Willie, Dave, K.C., Mike, Laurel, and Ilan. And
Hail Phil for going to this effort.
Agreed. Unlike the books which covered the accident and what's wrong
with NASA, "Columbia - Final Voyage" is an amazingly comprehensive book
about the people and their mission - I don't think anybody can argue
with that. Generations from now historians and researchers will be
using this book as a reference about the people and their mission.