Wednesday, January 26, 2005

RIP Challenger crew

Dr. Sanity reminds us that Friday January 28, 2005 is the ninteenth anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. She was the Crew Surgeon for Mission 51-L, and writes about that day in Challenger - A Flight Surgeon Remembers:
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).
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.
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.
Click through and read the whole thing. It is well-written and tragic.

On January 28, 1986, I was a college Sophomore on a cooperative education assignment at IBM Federal Systems Division in Manassas, Virginia. When I got the job, I was awed to be working for such a prestigious company. For most of my college career I alternated six months at IBM and six months at school.

Many of the engineers I worked with had come from another IBM location (I think it was Bethesda, Maryland). In Bethesda, they had worked on software for the AP-101 onboard mission computer for the Space Shuttle. As you can imagine, software development for the Space Shuttle was and is very serious business, and that group was a key player in the devleopment of Carnegie-Mellon's Software Capability Maturity Model. As news of the disaster spread, shock settled over the office. Many of my colleagues at the time spent years working on AP-101 software and had friends in the space program. The horrifying question was, "Did our code kill the crew?"

In time we learned the disaster had nothing to do with the AP-101, and we settled back into our normal office routine.

I haven't thought about that day in a while. Thanks, Dr. Sanity, for the reminder.

Rest in peace Francis "Dick" Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, and Christa Corrigan McAuliffe.