GREENSBORO, N.C. -- For Jonathan Ward, the news hit hard as he left choir practice on Saturday morning, Feb. 1, 2003.
“I got in my car and started driving home and I hadn't even gotten out of the parking lot when I heard they had lost Columbia,” Ward said. “I immediately got sick to my stomach and had to pull over to the side of the road and regroup before I could drive back the rest of the way home.”
Ward grew up as a child of the Space Age – watching Alan Shepard’s flight in 1961, when he was just 4-years-old, is an indelible memory – and later wrote about NASA and space travel in books like, “Rocket Ranch,” about the Apollo moon program and, “Bringing Columbia Home,” the fascinating story of what happened in the weeks and months after Columbia disintegrated on reentry.
A one-pound piece of foam insulation hit Columbia’s wing, as it blasted off. But, unlike Challenger, 17 years before, Columbia made it into space and all seemed fine.
“This was part of the complacency that had built into NASA,” Ward said. “It’s like they were saying, ‘We've had these kind of foam strikes before and it's never caused a problem - the shuttle's always made it home again. And it's just a one-pound piece of foam, what damage could it possibly do?’ So they had kind of convinced themselves that there was not going to be an issue.”
The issue became abundantly clear as the shuttle crossed over Texas, shortly before it was due back at Cape Canaveral.
“In east Texas, people were just getting up, 8 o'clock in the morning their time and suddenly heard this tremendous series - continuous series of explosions that rattled their houses for minutes at a time, as 80,000 pieces of the shuttle - all of them were breaking the sound barrier, each of them creating a sonic boom,” Ward said.
The great legacy of the disaster, though, as he recounts in his book, is the way communities in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas came together to do what had to be done to recover as much of the shuttle and crew as they could. Those, he says, are the remaining heroes.
“It was all the way from people who led the searches to a woman who was serving sweet tea in the VFW hall, they all look at this as one of the most important things they ever did in their lives,” Ward said.
See more of this story in this edition of the Buckley Report.