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

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.