Thursday, January 27, 2005

Challenger - A Flight Surgeon Remembers

On January 28, 1986, I was at Cape Canaveral in Florida. As a NASA Flight Surgeon, I had been assigned as the Crew Surgeon for Mission 51-L (noone really wanted the job since many disapproved of having a civilian--the teacher in space--fly on a space mission). The crew had trained together for over a year, and I had come to know them all very well in the course of the training and medical preparation. I had been at the Cape for over a week and the launch had been scrubbed several times for a variety of reasons. I had been staying in a cheap motel in Cocoa Beach as we waited for weather to permit the launch attempt.

One of the memories of have of that time is a CBS Evening News broadcast with Dan Rather on January 27th, who in a snide voice wondered if NASA would ever be able to launch a space mission on time? He then proceeded to go down a long list of Shuttle missions that had been delayed. I remember being annoyed at the time because of the unspoken expectation by Mr. Rather that launching a complex space vehicle like the Shuttle was a simple thing.

We had scrubbed several times at the last minute, but everyone was fairly certain that we would get a "go for launch" on January 28th, since that was President Reagan's State of the Union address, and he intended to mention the teacher-in-space, Christa McAuliffe. The Agency would not want to disappoint the President.

When I woke up the morning of the 28th, it took me only a few minutes to begin thinking that the launch would again be postponed. It was 19 degrees outside. This was unusually cold for Cocoa Beach, even in January, and I had not even brought a sweater with me. In the 15+ minute drive to Launch Control, I continually shivered from the cold, because there was no heat in the car I had rented either. I wore just a cotton pantsuit with a very light jacket.

In Launch Control, there was a great deal of buzz about the temperature. The countdown was proceeding, but there had been ice spotted on the external tank, and crews were sent out to check it out. All of us there (I was at the Surgeon's console, which monitored crew health, and directed emergency medical operations in the case of a catastrophic event on the launchpad, or for an RTLS (return to launch site) abort. We joked and talked among ourselves, commenting on the crew talking (we were one of the few consoles that monitored the crew chitchat in the Shuttle before launch).

Much to all of our surprise, after a delay, the countdown was resumed. It had been decided that it was safe to proceed. I remember that we were surprised because no Shuttle had launched in such cold weather before, but we all assumed that had been thoroughly discussed at a higher level. We were privy only to the comments that were in the LCC (Launch Control Center). The Management Team had met outside the LCC. The countdown proceeded and Challenger was launched. As soon as it lifted off the pad, control of the mission was transferred to the MCC in Houston. It was at this point that most of the LCC team could relax and turn around to watch the Shuttle ascend. There were large windows in the roof which gave us a prime view of the entire ascent, from about 3 miles away. I watched with my usual awe, that humans had been able to contain such energy and put it to use in escaping the planet.

My awe was short-lived as we noticed an anomoly. Something seemed to have gone wrong with the SRBs (solid rocket boosters) and they detached from the ET (external tank) too soon. There seemed to be a big explosion, but none of us were certain what might have happened. I swung into action, because it seemed that we must be in an RTLS situation. I made a few commands to my emergency team, who were outside in ambulances, as I continued to watch the growing cloud of the explosion, waiting for the Challenger to appear from behind it heading back to the landing site, not far away. I waited and waited. The orbiter did not appear. I felt a momentary confusion, and then I think all the blood must have rushed out of my head as I realized what it meant. I knew they must have been killed. All of them. I had to hold onto the console for support. All I could think of was oh my God, oh my God.

The Launch Director cooly called for a lockdown. Noone was to leave the room until all information on at all consoles was safely secured. It was then that I was able to gather myself together again, as I realized that if the crew was gone, my responsibility was to take care of their families. I went to the Launch Director and asked to be allowed to leave, because the families were in Crew Quarters, about a mile or so away down the road. After some discussion, the doors were unlocked and I was permitted out. I ran to my car and started down the road, but everyone on the highway had stopped and the road was blocked. People were milling around, still not accepting what they had just seen with their own eyes.

I was desperate to get to the families and do something useful. I wasn't sure what, but I felt they might need me there. I drove my car on the center divider and the grass between the lanes, and made my way through the crowds who had stopped to watch the launch. It took me some 20 minutes to get to Crew Quarters.

The next 12 hours were something of a blur. I had read about mass hysteria in textbooks, but that description was far too mild for what I found when I reached the place the crew called home prior to a launch. All the members of the immediate and extended family were there. Women were screaming; babies crying. People thronged around me, wanting to know if the crew had parachuted to safety. I was stunned that they had not yet grasped what had happened. One family member was certain that a rescue plane would find the crew in the ocean somewhere. Several people fainted. I needed help to medically manage the 30 or more family members who were there, but George Abbey, the dictatorial head of Flight Crew Ops would not permit me to call in any other doctor. He was in full damage control mode, and wouldn't permit any TVs or radios to be turned on either. Certainly, no phone calls. I needed to hospitalize one person, who had become disoriented and confused. Abbey said no. I said that I couldn't accept that, and did it anyway (that moment, I realized much later, ended my chances of becoming an astronaut myself--a dream I'd had most of my life). Abbey didn't want anyone to leave and head back to Houston (where everyone lived; and where their entire support was) until after Vice President Bush arrived. The Vice President arrived at about 8:00pm that night. By then I was exhausted and could hardly stand up. I barely remember being introduced to Bush and shaking his hand. The closest I came to crying was when I heard the wife of the Shuttle Commander (Dick Scobee) say in a quavering voice to Bush that her husband would not have wanted space exploration to be halted because of what had happened that day. I realized that beyond the grieving was a fear that we all had at the time that this would hurt NASA.

After Bush left, most of the families were hustled onto NASA planes to go back to Houston. I had to remain, however, because person I had hospitalized at the nearby Air Force hospital would not be able to fly back until the next day, and I was to go with that family. By then, reinforcements had arrived as other astronauts had flown to the Cape. When the families left, I gratefully collapsed into bed at Crew Quarters. I flew home the next day with my patient and their family. On the afternoon of the 29th, I finally made it home where my husband--who was waiting for me-- handed me about 100 phone messages from just about everyone I knew. When he took me in his arms, I finally started to cry and didn't stop for several hours.

For the next 5 years, I was unable to talk about what happened that day without becoming completely choked up and a blubbering idiot. I still get tears in my eyes as I remember it and the memorial service where I met President Reagan and his wife.

I watched NASA cope with this disaster using a combination of denial and intellectualization/rationalization. In the months that followed, I began to realize that the Agency I had idealized for so long as being one of the best and most competent, was actually corrupt and primarily concerned with covering its own mistakes. They were an Agency caught up in hubris, who believed in their own press far too much. Instead of making the changes in the culture that had led to this catastrophe, they were only concerned with making sure everyone thought they had made the changes. The appearance was more important than the reality. I had been a general flight surgeon before, and now, for the first time, I began to look at NASA with a psychiatrist's eyes. And what I saw disturbed me greatly. Especially in the way they handled the fact that the crew had NOT died immediately in the explosion as we all had thought, but were alive for some time as they fell into the ocean. I watched as they tried to hide that fact from the public and the families. I also watched as they carried out the motions of changing, but from the inside I saw no changes in attitude or behavior.

It has been 19 years since that cold morning changed me forever. When Columbia disintegrated on reentry, killing all the crew in 2003, many of my old friends called me to tell me that I had predicted that NASA would have another preventable tragedy. I would like to think that we learned something from the space missions we have lost--Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia -- but I fear that NASA has learned little. I refer you to Jim Oberg, an MSNBC space analyst and close friend, who has this to say today about all three disasters:

Spaceflight has its own inherent hazards, and if not respected, any of many factors can kill people. Recognizing this, engineers install backup hardware and escape systems and build in allowances for uncertainties -- all in an attempt to keep such external hazards at bay.
The debris from the disasters remained safely hidden away, comfortably out of sight and -- as experience would show -- tragically out of mind.
But the internal hazards -- what investigation boards have called the "flawed safety culture" -- have proven much more insidious. This is the realm of convenient assumptions, of complacency, of willfulness, of use of statistical superstitions, of a false familiarity with an unblinking foe. It is a culture made possible by an all-too-human aversion to facing unpleasantness.
It has become easy to look away from these horrible space disasters -- and I never call them "accidents," a term that relieves the people involved on the ground of ultimate responsibility.
NASA prefers to literally bury the wreckage in underground concrete crypts, to shove the investigation reports onto another bookshelf, and to allocate one day per year to honoring the dead while ignoring what killed them the other 364 days. (
read the entire piece).

I remember the Challenger and her crew frequently and with love. They are a part of me now. All of them represent the best within the American spirit, and always will. Since that day in 1986, I have come to see NASA as one of the greatest impediments to the Dream of space exploration; but I have never given up the Dream itself. Nor have I forgotten any of the pioneers who have died in the service of that Dream. Some day we humans will leave this small planet and joyfully play in all the corners of the cosmos.

I eagerly look forward to it.

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