Total Failure: When The Space Shuttle Didn't Come Home

May 17, 2017
Originally published on May 18, 2017 1:13 am

The morning that the space shuttle Columbia was supposed to return home, Wayne Hale was at the landing site. At age 48, Hale was an up-and-coming manager with NASA. He'd just taken a job overseeing shuttle launches. But since this was a landing day, he didn't have much to do.

It was Feb. 1, 2003. He and other managers were hanging out in a grassy viewing area near the landing strip at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Families of the astronauts were there, too. Loudspeakers were playing communications between Columbia and mission control.

"Really it was a kind of party atmosphere," he recalls.

Hale was chatting to his friends, feeling relaxed. The astronauts were scheduled to land any minute.

"And finally somebody, I can't remember who, said: 'Isn't it unusual for them to be out of contact for so long?" he says.

The shuttle sometimes passed through a brief communications blackout during re-entry. But it never lasted more than a few minutes.

Hale looked over at the large countdown clock near the landing strip.

"And I said to myself, I thought, 'No, this is really unusual. Not to have communication with the crew at this point is not good. There is something seriously wrong.' "

Hale and the others rushed back to the main buildings at the space center. By the time they made it, the television was already showing footage of the shuttle streaking across the sky, breaking apart, with seven crew members inside.

Hale had spent his entire adult life in the space business. He knew it was dangerous. But he thought NASA had the smartest engineers, the best rockets.

"I mean, I thought our organization was great. I thought we could handle anything," he says.

Hale and everyone at NASA that day felt an incredible sense of loss and also of failure.

"Our job was to keep the crew safe, and they weren't safe. That's an immediate failure. Now you're just asking, 'In what way did we fail?' "

Trying to answer that question changed Hale's life forever.

The first step in the chain of events that led to Columbia's loss came more than two weeks earlier. On Jan. 17, the day after the launch, an engineer named Bob Page walked into Hale's office. Page was in charge of the video cameras watching the shuttle as it shot upward. Those cameras had seen something, he said. He popped a CD in Hale's computer and pulled up the clip. It showed something fuzzy coming off the shuttle's big orange external fuel tank. The object smacked into Columbia's side and went "poof" somewhere around the left wing.

Pretty much right away, Hale knew what had happened. The big tank is covered in foam insulation. Some of that foam had fallen off and hit the shuttle during liftoff. Hale and the other managers had daily meetings to look at the incident. In the end, they decided it wouldn't be a problem.

"The bottom line was, we all felt pretty good. This was not going to be a safety issue. We'd have to do some maintenance work, but it's not a safety issue. And that's what we told the crew," he says.

Foam had been striking shuttles every now and then for years. It had done some damage in the past, but not too much. This time was different, though. On this fateful flight, the foam punched a small hole in the left wing. When the shuttle re-entered the atmosphere, hot gases seeped into the hole. The aluminum frame melted. The wing buckled, and the Columbia broke apart.

So the wing failed because the foam failed, but for Hale and NASA, that was not the real failure.

"All real problems are people problems. It's not, 'Did the foam come off the tank?' It's 'Why did people let the foam come off the tank? Why did we think it was OK to let foam come off the tank?'"

He'd known about the foam problem for years. He'd been in meetings where he could have said something.

"I was senior enough. So yeah, I feel like this was probably the worst failure of my life," he says.

After the accident, an official investigation found there were some smart people at NASA who were worried. Engineers lower down in the shuttle organization had discussed problems with the foam many times before. But their concerns weren't clearly understood by people at the top like Hale.

Managers had a lot to worry about. They needed to keep the shuttle program on schedule and on budget. And there were always problems that needed to be fixed. So if an engineer couldn't explain an issue clearly, it got ignored.

"If somebody brought a concern to you, and it just didn't sound logical, you were very dismissive and told them to get a life," he says.

After the accident, the heads of the shuttle program were removed. Hale was promoted to second-in-command of the entire fleet.

"You talk about feeling guilty, now there is something to feel guilty about," he says.

Part of Hale's new job was to change the cultural problems at NASA, and he resolved to start right away.

"I said the first thing we've got to do is we've got to put the arrogance aside," he says.

Hale became a listener. When an engineer came to him with an issue after the accident, even if he didn't understand it, he tried.

Hale oversaw many of the shuttle flights after the accident. It did not fail again. He says they made plenty of changes to checklists.

But he thinks the biggest change was that everyone who worked at NASA became better at talking — and listening.

This story is the first in a four-part series on the experience of failure and how people deal with it. It was developed in NPR's Story Lab. Nicholas DePrey created original music for the series.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We tend to mark our successes in life, but what if we're thinking about it the wrong way? What if it's failure that shapes us? All this month in a series we're calling Total Failure, we will examine mistakes and how they change people's lives. Today, NPR's Geoff Brumfiel brings us the story of Wayne Hale. He's an official at NASA who was involved in one of the agency's greatest failures - the loss of the space shuttle Columbia.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: On the morning of February 1, 2003, the Columbia was supposed to come back. Wayne Hale was at the landing site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Wayne was an up and coming manager with NASA. He'd just taken a job overseeing shuttle launches. But since today was a landing, he didn't have much to do.

WAYNE HALE: Really, it was kind of a party atmosphere out there.

BRUMFIEL: He and the other managers were hanging around in a grassy viewing area near the landing strip. Families of the astronauts were there, too. Loudspeakers were playing communications between Columbia and Mission Control.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Columbia continuing toward Florida, now approaching the New Mexico-Texas border.

BRUMFIEL: Wayne was chatting with his friends and feeling pretty relaxed. The astronauts were scheduled to land any minute.

HALE: And I really was not paying a bit of attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And Columbia, Houston, we see your tire pressure messages, and we did not copy your last.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Roger.

HALE: And finally, somebody - and I can't remember who - said, isn't it unusual for them to be out of contact for so long? And I looked over at the clock, and I said, you know, to myself - I thought, no, this is really unusual. Not to have communication with the crew at this point is not good. There is something seriously wrong. And that's the first time I thought we were in real trouble.

BRUMFIEL: Wayne and the others rushed back to the main buildings at the Space Center. By the time they made it, the television was already showing footage of the shuttle streaking across the sky, breaking apart with seven crew members inside.

HALE: It was just, I mean, a very low time, really bad.

BRUMFIEL: Wayne had spent his entire adult life in the space business. He knew it was dangerous, but NASA had the smartest engineers, the best rockets.

HALE: I mean, I thought our organization was great. I thought we could handle anything.

BRUMFIEL: Wayne and everyone at NASA that day felt an incredible sense of loss and also of failure.

HALE: Our job is to keep the crew safe, and they weren't safe. And that's an immediate failure. Now you're just asking, in what way did we fail?

BRUMFIEL: Trying to answer that question changed Waynes life forever. To understand how that happened, we need to go back to the day after the launch, when an engineer who worked for him, a guy named Bob Page, walked through his door.

HALE: Bob comes into my office and says, hey, we had a debris strike on the orbiter. And I've got this video clip. Let me show it to you.

BRUMFIEL: He popped a CD into Wayne's computer and pulled up the clip. It showed something fuzzy coming off the shuttle's big orange external fuel tank. The object smacked into Columbia's side.

HALE: Somewhere on kind of the left wing area and went poof.

BRUMFIEL: Pretty much right away Wayne knew what had happened. The big tank is covered in foam insulation. Some of that foam had fallen off and hit the shuttle during liftoff. Wayne and the other managers had meetings to look at the incident, and in the end, they decided, yeah, this is not a problem.

HALE: The bottom line was we all felt pretty good. This is not going to be a safety issue. We're going to have to do some maintenance work but not a safety issue. And that's what we told the crew, you know, that's what we all thought.

BRUMFIEL: Foam had been striking shuttles every now and then for years. It had done some damage in the past but not too much. This time was different though. On this fateful flight, the foam punched a small hole in the left wing.

When the shuttle re-entered the atmosphere, hot gasses seeped into the hole. The aluminum frame melted. The wing buckled. The shuttle broke apart. So the wing failed because the foam failed, but for Wayne and NASA, that was not the real failure.

HALE: All real problems are people problems. It's not, you know, did the foam come off the tank. It's why did people let the foam come off the tank? Why did we think it was OK for foam to come off the tank?

BRUMFIEL: Remember, he'd known about the foam problem for years. He'd been in meetings where he could have said, hey, this looks dangerous.

HALE: There are a hundred times I could have stood up. And would it have made a difference would? Would people have listened to me? I think they probably would have. I was senior enough. So yeah, I feel like this was probably the worst failure of my life.

BRUMFIEL: Why didn't you? Why didn't you stand up?

HALE: Well, you need a psychiatrist for that, I guess. I mean, I didn't think I needed to. I mean, I didn't think of it. I wasn't smart enough.

BRUMFIEL: After the accident, an official investigation found there were some smart people at NASA who were worried. Engineers lower down in the shuttle organization had discussed problems with the foam many times before, but their concerns weren't clearly understood by people at the top like Wayne.

HALE: We've got an awful lot of smart people in the space program, but many of them are not very good communicators.

BRUMFIEL: And managers had a lot to worry about. They needed to keep the shuttle program on schedule and on budget. And there were always problems that needed fixing, so if an engineer couldn't explain an issue clearly, it got ignored.

HALE: If somebody brought a concern to you and it was not, you know, it just didn't sound logical, you were very dismissive and basically told them to get a life.

BRUMFIEL: After the accident, the heads of the shuttle program were removed. And in a strange twist of fate, Wayne Hale was promoted to second in command of the entire fleet.

HALE: How can this be? You know, we screwed up. We failed. We made this big mistake. I was in the middle of it. And yet, you know, they put me in a higher position of authority. So yeah, you talk about feeling guilty. Now there is something to feel guilty about.

BRUMFIEL: Part of Wayne's new job was to fix the cultural problems at NASA, and he resolved to start right away.

HALE: We said the first thing we got to do is we got to put the arrogance aside.

BRUMFIEL: Wayne became a listener. When an engineer came to him with an issue after the accident, even if he didn't understand it, he tried.

HALE: I really had to take a step back and start treating people with OK, you've got this concern, I don't understand it. Back in the old days I would have yelled at you, but you don't say that. And now I have to really think about how I get you to give me some more information.

BRUMFIEL: Wayne oversaw many of the shuttle flights after the accident. It did not fail again. He says they made plenty of changes to checklists, but he thinks the biggest change was that everyone who worked at NASA became better at talking and listening. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEBASTIAN TELLIER'S "LA RITOURNELLE")

CORNISH: Next week, our series Total Failure continues with the story of how mighty George Foreman lost the heavyweight title. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.