How Nasa ignored space shuttle blast-off mishap that meant all 7 Columbia crew were doomed

How Nasa ignored space shuttle blast-off mishap that meant all 7 Columbia crew were doomed

WATCHING the Space ­Shuttle Columbia hurtling skywards at 17,000mph, Dr Jonathan Clark felt a conflicting mix of emotions.

As part of the Nasa ground control team, he was excited and proud to see a new mission launched but as the husband of crew member Dr Laurel Clark and father to their distraught eight-year-old son Iain, he could not help but worry.

It’s been over two decades since the Columbia space shuttle broke apart, two weeks after its triumphant launchNASA

All seven crew members on board tragically passed awayGetty

The shuttle began to shed debris across a wide area on re-entry over TexasAP

Tragically on February 1, 2003 — two weeks after the triumphant launch from the Kennedy Space ­Centre in Florida — Jon’s worst fears were realised when, shortly after re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, the Columbia broke apart, killing all seven crew members.

Now Jon, who appears in a new BBC documentary on the tragedy, reveals his young son begged Laurel not to board the doomed Shuttle.

He told The Sun: “In the week before she left, Iain kept telling her, ‘I don’t want you to go’.

“He was begging her not to go, and while most of us were excited at the launch, he cried.

“Afterwards he felt guilty, saying, ‘I wish she had listened to me’. It’s eerie that he had this sense that he didn’t want his mum to do this.”

After a seemingly successful launch, the crew spent 16 days in orbit and the 113th mission of Nasa’s Shuttle fleet appeared to be going to plan.

But on re-entry over Texas it began to shed debris across a wide area and went into a spin before breaking up, with the loss of all on board.

‘I was very emotional’

The harrowing but compelling three-part documentary, The Space Shuttle That Fell To Earth, reveals that Nasa engineers spotted a large lump of insulating foam “the size of a suitcase” flying off the huge external fuel tank just after launch and hitting the attached Shuttle’s left wing.

But the programme claims Nasa chiefs ignored repeated pleas from the engineers for more investigation into the possible damage caused and ­suggests lives could have been saved.

Harrowing documentary The Space Shuttle That Fell To Earth looks at how Nasa ignored repeated warnings from engineersYouTube / @NasaHD

Engineers spotted insulating foam flying off the fuel tank just after launchYouTube / @NasaHD

And they saw it hit the attached shuttle’s left wingYouTube / @NasaHD

Former flight surgeon Jon, now 70, was in the unique position of the mission involving “both my life and my wife” and said he feels partly to blame for the disaster.

He had been told about the foam-strike incident at Mission Control but did not discuss it with Laurel, 41, during their radio communication sessions.

He said: “I found out about the foam and I thought, ‘Whoa, what’s going on here?’ I dug deeper into it and talked to an engineer colleague about whether I should talk to Laurel about it.

“He said, ‘Remember, you’re a flight surgeon now, not a family member’. After everything went sour, I felt like I own this too. It’s partly my fault.”

Jon and Laurel met during Navy medical training and he told The Sun she was “a very special woman”.

He added: “I’m quite introverted and she was far more extrovert and friendly. She could make friends instantly, and she was a big hugger.

“She loved colourful outfits and Nasa is traditionally very sterile — white shirts with a black tie — so they called her Floral Laurel.”

She was also a devoted mum to Iain. In a poignant interview clip in the documentary, Laurel says: “Motherhood has been incredible and I tell my son all the time that my most important job is being his mother.”

Jon added: “When she left for space she left a stuffed animal toy with a note for Iain for every day she would be away. She’s an inspiration to me.”

Iain, now 29, said Laurel was his “whole world” and added: “I relied on my mum for so much.

“I begged her pretty desperately not to go, I was very emotional. I was crying, trying to stop her leaving.”

The first reusable space vehicles, Nasa’s Shuttles had been flying since 1981 — with only one two-year break in the programme, after one of them, Challenger, exploded shortly after launch in 1986, killing all seven crew.

Columbia’s doomed flight was originally scheduled for 2001 but was delayed 13 times over technical and safety issues before finally lifting off on January 16, 2003.

When I saw that Shuttle going up, that’s when I felt a little sting from it. It was like, ‘Man, how can she just leave like that?

Jon Clark

Laurel, a US Navy captain, was flying with experienced astronauts Rick Husband, the flight commander, engineer Kalpana Chawla and payload commander Mike Anderson, plus ­fellow first-timers William McCool, David Brown and Ilan Ramon.

Jon said the launch felt “incredibly visceral and powerful”, but Iain, who began crying as the rocket boosters fired up, said: “When I saw that Shuttle going up, that’s when I felt a little sting from it. It was like, ‘Man, how can she just leave like that?’”

The launch seemed like a success and the Nasa ground team breathed a ­collective sigh of relief.

But in detailed footage of the launch ­captured by 130 cameras, engineer Bob Page spotted a worrying anomaly.

He said: “We got to 81 seconds and we see this object come off the external tank area, move down and strike the vehicle and explode into a white cloud. My reaction was, ‘Oh, s**t!’”

It was impossible to see how much damage had been caused by the falling foam, measuring 27in by 18in and travelling at 750mph.

But Bob feared it may have damaged heat-resistant tiles that protect the nose and wing from blistering re-entry temperatures.

He raised the issue with programme manager Wayne Hale, asking if they could use powerful telescopes to get further images.

Nasa engineer Rodney Rocha was also concerned and sent an email suggesting the crew could examine the outside through a hatch window.

Engineers also suggested working with the US military, whose satellites could get a close-up of the craft, but were overruled by Nasa senior staff.

After a meeting of 15 experts, Rodney reported that “all agreed that we would have uncertainties until we get better, clearer photos of the wing and body underside”, adding: “Can we petition (beg) for outside agency assistance?”

He added: “Once you have proof, if there was damage, then you have experts just flowing in.

“You tell the crew and they’re now part of the solution. They have tools, cutting instruments, you take the available materials, you improvise, you stuff the hole, then you can talk about altering the re- entry trajectory.

“We would have tried something. First, you need images.”

I was upset and angry and disappointed. It was a ticking clock, we were losing time

Rodney Rocha

Wayne Hale initiated a request to the Air Force but was overruled by Nasa commander Linda Ham, and Rodney was dismissed by his superior, Paul Shack, as a “Chicken Little” — panicking over nothing.

Rodney said: “I was upset and angry and disappointed. It was a ticking clock, we were losing time.”

He drafted a damning email calling his superiors “wrong and irresponsible” but the strict hierarchy at Nasa prevented him from sending it amid fears it would end his career.

The crew were eventually told of the damage on the eighth day of their mission — too late for repairs to be made — when Linda Ham, aware that a journalist might ask about it, sent an email describing the issue as “not even worth mentioning”.

Eight days later, Jon, Iain and the other families gathered at the Kennedy Space Centre as a clock counted down to re-entry and landing.

Jon said: “Iain was very excited — Mum’s coming home and he’s going to get mum hugs, great meals, and life will be back to normal.”

Tears streaming down

Iain tells the programme: “I don’t know what I expected when I saw that clock — like my mum to just magically arrive when it got to zero?

“Then the clock started counting back up — it went to -1 then -2.”

Late astronaut Laurel Clark’s husband Jon in the documentaryMindhouse Productions

Jon tells how son Iain did not want his mum to go on the missionGetty

And he talks about the tragic moment Nasa had to break the news to familiesGetty

When the Shuttle failed to appear, Rick Husband’s wife Evelyn says she felt an “incredible pit in my stomach — fear, anxiety, a rush of adrenalin. You just know something’s wrong.”

In Mission Control, where the ­Shuttle was no longer showing on screens, tears were streaming down the faces of the helpless team, while calls from across Texas reported burning debris falling from the sky.

During Columbia’s re-entry, hot gases had penetrated the damaged tile section and melted parts of the wing, which collapsed, causing the eventual break-up of the craft.

At the crew quarters, flight director Bob Cabana was forced to tell the families it was unlikely that any of the astronauts had survived.

Jon said: “That’s when the real wailing started. It was primal, group hugs. I cried my heart out and the children were wailing.

“It was unequivocally the most emotional experience I’ve ever had.”

Even after the tragedy, Shuttle ­programme manager Ron Dittemore dismissed claims that the foam strike was to blame as “nonsensical”, because it was too light, but lab tests later proved it was capable of punching a hole in the insulation tiles.

You don’t rush to say, ‘You’re to blame’ because the blame thing is disadvantageous to all of us. It’s about finding a cause and fixing it

Jon Clark

Jon said: “There was arrogance in thinking this little piece of foam couldn’t do anything.

“But if you do the physics, it’s the velocity that counts, not the mass. A small object weighing 1.5lb, travelling at 780mph, can do a lot of damage.

“I still have dreams about what we could all have done differently. If we had thrown all our resources into it we could have figured out a solution.

“That’s what plagues me and I’ve devoted my career to improving crew safety since.

“The good thing is that we learned from those lessons and spacecraft have new incorporated safety features because of this disaster.”

Jon, who never remarried, takes comfort from his seven-year-old granddaughter, also named Laurel.

He said: “She has her grandmother’s persona. She’s huggy, ebullient, extrovert.

“When we go to the playground she makes friends of all ages so she’s very like Laurel. Maybe that’s one of God’s miracles.”

Despite the failings at Nasa laid bare in the documentary, Jon does not point the finger.

He said: “Laurel and I had been in military aviation and had been involved in mishap investigations and when you figure out what happened, you learn from it.

“You don’t rush to say, ‘You’re to blame’ because the blame thing is disadvantageous to all of us. It’s about finding a cause and fixing it.”

Columbia: The Space Shuttle That Fell To Earth continues on BBC2 tonight at 9pm and is available on BBC iPlayer.

Here’s how the Columbia space shuttle tragedy unfolded

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