Countdown to the last liftoff: Columbia remembered
I normally sleep late on Saturdays. This one Saturday was no different. I sauntered into the living room, turned on the TV and made some coffee. When I first sat down, the TV was silent. There was a picture of white streaks moving across a blue sky. At first I didn’t know what I was looking at. Then I saw the banner headline at the bottom of the screen, “Communications with Columbia Lost.”
By noon I was in my office at AGI. So were a lot of other people. None of us had clear goals at the time. Most just wanted to be there to help. I spent some of that day making texture maps and modifying models, but most of the time I was waiting. I was waiting for the STK scenario that could take the data we could get at the time and turn it into a picture of what happened. That's where I come in. I tell stories using pictures.
A small army of people were on the phones. Old telemetry was being replaced by estimated data. Estimated data was being replaced by actual telemetry. Slowly it came together. Shortly before midnight I got the finished scenario. I was psyched—I finally had a job to do. The video was to show the shuttle as it passed over California, and how it broke up. Shortly after I started playing the scenario, the track of Columbia began to split apart; at first into 10, then 20. They looked just like the white streaks I’d seen earlier that day on TV. In an instant, my enthusiasm for the job was extinguished. I was no longer playing a scenario. I was watching the last moments of seven astronauts.
Shortly after 2 a.m. the video was finished. In the following months many other videos were made depicting different aspects of the tragedy. As part of the support staff of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, my co-worker Ed Mackey built a detailed model of Columbia for Josh Lane, also from AGI, for use by the board in their investigation.
It is not often that one gets to be part of history. Often we are just bystanders. Nothing we did that day was able to change the outcome. Nobody could do that. We could only do what we do best; bring meaning to what would otherwise be just numbers on a piece of paper.
Posted: 6/30/2011 5:48:28 PM