|Integrated Defense Systems|
Boeing employees cope with tragedy, and find resolve to move forward
Searching for clues
"That's nothing of ours, just a piece of rock." The voice was that of Doug Gray, with a cell phone against his ear, trudging through a Texas farm field in search of debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia. "All right, let's move on," he said to others in his search party.
It was Gray's 11th energy-sapping day as one of a small army of searchers made up of Boeing, NASA and United Space Alliance personnel, sheriffs' deputies and even some orange-suited county inmates.
Although they discovered pieces, the odds were tough, like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. What key piece of mangled hardware contained the riddle of what went suddenly wrong on Feb. 1, when Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew were lost?
A member of Boeing's rapid response team, Gray had raced into work at the Kennnedy Space Center, Fla., but had been intercepted by a cell phone call sending him back home to pack his bags. He was soon on a plane for Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana to join the growing debris recovery effort.
"Things have been so busy, there's been no time to sit and think about it," Gray said. In the initial hours, he and others held painful feelings at bay and threw themselves into their mission. But eventually, the enormity of what happened closed in.
"At Barksdale on the first Sunday, human remains were brought in," Gray recalled. "And that really got me."
Shifted the following morning to the Dallas–Fort Worth Naval Air Station, Gray's team fanned out across the East Texas scrub brush, picking up tiles and other fragments from Columbia.
"We're at the cause end, not the effect end," he said of the search of the early debris field. Guided by grid maps and supported by Black Hawk helicopters, Gray said, "We think we'll get to the cause."
Led by the Red Cross, the local community pitched in and sent convoys of donated food and water.
Gray kept in touch by cell phone with his family in Florida, to whom he had never had the chance to say goodbye in the rush to Texas.
"I missed my 11-year-old daughter's first dance competition in Orlando," he said. "I'm also going to miss my son's Indian guides campout. That may be the toughest part. It's a hardship, but they understand."
Most people will always remember where they were when they received word that Space Shuttle Columbia had been lost during re-entry on Feb. 1. However, it is the adrenaline-filled hours following this news that seem to be a blur for many employees involved in the Space Shuttle program.
Laura Brewster-Comer works on the Shuttle Program in Houston as a management assistant to the Orbiter Program Director. Brewster-Comer provided the words for the well-known Shuttle team message, "We will support our customer, we will find the problem, we will fix the problem, we will fly again soon," which continues to serve as encouraging words to employees throughout NASA Systems.
"I remember getting to work Sunday morning (Feb. 2) trying to make sense of what happened 24 hours earlierall while trying to remain professional," Brewster-Comer said. "I remember President Bush saying that we owe it to mankind to keep the space program alive, and it reminded me that we must keep going, stay focused and remember what our job is."
Brewster-Comer summarized the words of President Bush and later the speech by NASA Shuttle Program Director Ron Dittemore into the four lines that were hand written on an easel board in the Boeing Space Shuttle Contingency Operations Center. Over the next few days, almost everyone who entered the room embraced Brewster-Comer's words, and before long the message was reprinted on posters for the benefit of all NASA Systems employees.
"It's my hope that when we get caught up in the moment, we can look at these words and remember what our mission is ... remember where our focus must be," she said.
"We can't afford to wander. We must stay focused, intelligent, sharp and of sound mind in our work effortstreating this effort with the utmost respect and support for our customer."
'Be brave, be strong'
It was an e-mail Will Judd never thought he'd write, even after two days of crying and getting sick.
"Dear friends," it began, one day after the Columbia accident. "It's been an agonizing weekend. I sat at home watching the wreckage on the broadcasts … of a ship I had been aboard mere weeks before."
The e-mail went to 100 of Judd's friends, some of whom he'd known as far back as kindergarten. His note was heartfelt, like mourning a family member.
Judd hailed Columbia, NASA's first shuttle, as "the queen of the fleet." He wrote from the heart about the loss and "the difficult time in my life."
"The loss of Columbia and her gallant crew is a burden that I, and others who work here with me, will remember forever in a very personal way," he wrote.
One week later, he opened up the mail in his Kennedy Space Center workspace in Florida, where he is an engineer in Orbital Handling & Group Support Equipment. Inside one envelope were 20 pieces of children's artwork. They had arrived from the third grade class of Tamassee-Salem Elementary School in Tamassee, S.C.
"Be strong NASA, we love you," read one, depicting a shuttle.
"Be brave, NASA," read another.
"You're in our hearts, NASA."
"Let your dreams soar into space."
"I was very emotional," Judd said. "The messages were very inspirational, showing support for our group of engineers at KSC."
How those messages came to be is another story. During his vacation time, Judd speaks to schools, youth groups and summer camps about space.
"I want to get kids interested in science, and appreciate some of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into a launch."
Although he'd never been to Tamassee-Salem Elementary School, someone had sent one of the teachers a copy of his e-mail and she had read it to her class.
"We haven't figured out what to do with them yet," Judd said of the children's artwork. But it's a good bet he'll find time to pay the class a visit and thank the young artists of Tamassee-Salem Elementary.
Finding strength amid chaos
On my balcony, I waited for the twin sonic booms. By custom, the breaking of the sound barrier has signaled every NASA shuttle's return home from space. I kept waiting.
On the television, the local station was reporting, "It doesn't look very good ... something is not right about Columbia."
My adrenaline began to kick in. I grabbed my cell phone to call my boss, Brian Nelson. He was calling me. Boeing had activated the contingency plan, and we both knew what to do.
The NASA press site seemed like a war zone when I pulled up. Television trucks clogged the parking lot. Inside, swarms of media buzzed like moths around a flame. I was forced to dodge and weave my way through the confusion, to lay claim to Boeing's section of the newsroom counter. Phones were ringing off the wall, reporters were shouting questions and the television monitors were blaring the latest news of Columbia's disappearance.
Aided by Boeing Rocketdyne's David Mandernack, Brian and I got to work. We began helping NASA field the avalanche of media calls and queries. The chaos was building. We copied from the Web Boeing's media statement on the accident and placed printed copies on the counter. Reporters quickly snapped them up.
In the midst of the escalating bedlam, I saw JoAnn Morgan, NASA's director of External Relations for Kennedy Space Center, heading our way. She seemed emotionally distraught, with something close to a tear in her eye. She reached out for Brian's hand and whispered, "We are so grateful that you are here to help."
I'll always remember those hours. I'll also remember how important it was that we were there to support our NASA teammates.
Even in the face of misfortune, I felt a sense of calm. I was confident this trial would pass, and that our mission in space would continue.
Thorough analysis and investigation
While the Space Shuttle Main Engines built by Boeing Rocketdyne did not appear to have played a part in the Columbia tragedy, a thorough effort was nevertheless under way at the Canoga Park, Calif.–based business to support NASA in its quest to understand what happened on Feb. 1.
The SSME Program at Rocketdyne named SSME program veteran Doug Bradley the leader of a team to work with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala. Following the accident, NASA created separate teams to review each major element of the Shuttle system: the orbiter, solid rocket booster, external tank and main engines. The Marshall SSME team developed and methodically worked a comprehensive fault tree to identify all potential failure causes.
Concurrently, Rocketdyne SSME Chief Engineer Dan Adamski worked with NASA and contractor counterparts as a member of a Houston-based, NASA-led chief engineers council.
"Our role is to offer oversight and guidance into the ongoing investigation, which includes data review, development of a fault tree and helping to plan the direction the investigation should take," Adamski explained.
As the SSME Systems Product Team manager, Bradley played a role in implementing the SSME program contingency plan complementary to NASA's.
"Our first job was to preserve and protect launch data so it's available if needed during the investigation," Bradley explained. The list of materials to be impounded didn't stop with ascent, but extended into the history of the hardware flown on the mission all the way to individual suppliers, who had to implement their own complementary contingency plans.
"There's a ripple effect throughout the engine community" in response to something like this, Bradley said.
"We don't want to miss anything or take anything for granted," he continued. At its peak, the Rocketdyne team had more than 140 people working part- or full-time to support the investigation.
Trying to come to terms with the tragedy while also lending full support to the investigation wasn't easy, Adamski observed, and feelings were mixed.
"It's important that we remain aware and sensitive and continue to move forward."
The level of cooperation was amazing, Bradley said. "We all want to find out what happened and make sure it never occurs again."
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