REVIEWED: Bringing Columbia Home

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Bringing Columbia Home by Michael D. Leinbach & Jonathan H. Ward, with foreword by Robert Crippen and epilogue by Eileen Collins (Nonfiction, 2018).

Some 15 years ago, the space shuttle Columbia’s damaged heatshield led to a disastrous and deadly breakup after reentering Earth’s atmosphere. All seven astronauts were killed and a grim debris field spread along a 250-mile swath of mostly rural, often swampy territory in East Texas and Louisiana. This book meticulously details what led up to the tragedy, what became the largest accident search effort in US history and the extremely painstaking reassembly of evidence that confirmed the cause–and eventually led to the remaining shuttles returning to service to complete the International Space Station, before being permanently retired.

Leinbach was the launch director for the shuttle program at the time and played a key role in investigating the tragedy; Ward has written previously about other aspects of space program history; Crippen and Collins are, of course, veteran former astronauts (Crippen was in charge of Columbia‘s first flight, while Collins commanded the first shuttle mission AFTER the disaster). So all concerned offer an abundance of inside information. Additionally, a very wide array of other people were interviewed for their takes on aspects of the event–not just people with NASA, either. The recovery efforts, finding the remains of the doomed crew and locating all the surviving components of Columbia possible were a gigantic, physically taxing, emotionally overwhelming and actually dangerous undertakings that involved thousands of people. Some of the most interesting aspects of the effort involved the many small town officials and private citizens who took part, as well as many teams of government fire fighters (most of these Native Americans of various tribal groups) who worked tirelessly in difficult and frustrating conditions. A helicopter crash took two more lives, while countless searchers endured miserable weather and rugged, thorny entanglements that literally shredded even sturdy clothing.

The whole story is reported in exhaustive detail. The co-authors are forthright about the failings in NASA’s organizational culture that led to this disaster and about the efforts to address those issues. They also note the physical and emotional toll the events inflicted on searchers and investigators, connected with NASA and otherwise.

A straightforward, capably written account of a great tragedy and its complex aftermath.

 

 

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