Spaceman: An Astronaut's Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe - Mike Massimino (2016)

Part V. Russian Roulette

Chapter 20. WHY WE GO

After burying our friends, one Friday afternoon that June, Digger and I flew down to the Kennedy Space Center to say one last good-bye—to our spaceship. All through February and into the spring, crews were walking the debris field that Columbia had left strewn across Texas and Louisiana. Anytime a piece of the shuttle was found, it was collected and shipped to the Kennedy Space Center. There, in one of the hangars, they had an outline of the shuttle on the floor. As the pieces came in they were being cataloged and arranged where they belonged. If they found a piece of the fuselage, it would go here. If they found a piece of the landing gear, it would go there. Like putting together a puzzle. Some pieces were charred and twisted. Others were remarkably intact. I could stand in the middle of it and see: This was the ship that took me to space. My locker was here. The galley was there. That’s the window where I listened to Radiohead and looked out at the wonders of the universe. By looking at what survived and what didn’t, I could tell where the explosion happened and how the shuttle came apart.

There was a separate room, a private area the public wasn’t allowed to see. That was where the crew’s personal effects were being collected. It was surprising some of the things that made it down. A few photographs survived. Ilan’s diary survived. Several of its pages were readable, too. We recovered parts of their helmets, pieces of their flight suits. As with the shuttle itself, by looking at what was left behind I could see how they died.

Digger and I mostly walked around the hangar, not saying much. That was more or less the mood back in Houston as well. It was somber. It was like a collective post-traumatic reaction, like everyone had been punched in the gut. But life doesn’t stop. While the accident investigation board conducted its inquiry, we still had a lot of work to do. Some of the astronauts were tasked with aiding the investigation. Some of us were tasked with reworking the shuttle systems to prevent future accidents. Most of us were tasked with keeping business as usual moving forward, which is what I was doing as best I could. We still had people on the space station. Don Pettit and Ken Bowersox ended up staying there an extra three months while they waited for a ride home with the Russians on the Soyuz, and I was CAPCOMing for them regularly. Future flight crews were already assigned, and even with those missions being delayed and shuffled around, we had to work on the assumption that the shuttle was coming back online eventually. So we kept training, kept doing runs in the pool. But there was no joy in any of it. It felt like everyone was going through the motions. One morning a few months after the accident, I was supporting Scott Parazynski on a training run in the pool. We were getting ready to lower him into the water and he stopped and looked at me. He said, “Mike, I don’t want to do this.”

I said, “I don’t wanna be here, either, but we have to.”

The truth is, for me, things hadn’t been going well even before the accident. Sean O’Keefe was sending me out for different media and PR appearances and I was enjoying that part of the job, but my main goal was to get assigned to another flight and get back to space. That had turned out to be a challenge. As soon as STS-109 landed safely, the Hubble team turned its efforts to the final servicing mission, Servicing Mission 4. That last Hubble flight was the flight that every spacewalker wanted. The culture at NASA is about serving the greater good and there is no “I” in team and all that, but people still have egos. People want the chance to tackle the high-profile assignments. People want the chance to do interesting, challenging work. So as the last Hubble flight got under way, there was some political jockeying going on. People were trying to position themselves to get assigned.

On 109, John Grunsfeld had been my mentor and protector. Shortly after we got back, he was called up to DC for a new job, serving as chief science officer. That left me without the advocate I’d come to rely on. When the first set of development runs for the final servicing mission started up I was included in them. Then the second set of development runs started, and I wasn’t invited to the planning meetings. Suddenly I was out of the loop.

I went and talked to the head of the EVA branch and asked him why I wasn’t being included. He said it was because of my postflight evaluations on 109. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t great. It was a matter of experience. As far as doing the work and executing my tasks, I’d done fine. But Newman and some of the other people rating my performance said that I hadn’t shown the leadership skills to be an EV1. They said I needed more seasoning before I could be the lead spacewalker on a team. Basically, the EVA branch was saying I needed at least one more mission under my belt before taking a lead role. But the EVA plan for the final Hubble flight was the same as it had been for ours, to go out with two leaders and two first-time spacewalkers. I couldn’t go back as a rookie, and I hadn’t established myself as a leader. I was somewhere in the middle, which meant I wasn’t going back to Hubble.

I was disappointed. I’d set my sights on going back. I wanted to be a Hubble guy. Now the discussion around the office was that I’d be better suited to go to station and get more experience there. But there was a long line of people who’d been training on station while I was working on Hubble. Before the accident a whole bunch of station assembly flights were announced, and I wasn’t on them. I was in limbo. Then Columbia happened and I wasn’t sure if I’d ever fly again.

On August 23, 2003, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board issued its report. At 81.7 seconds after launch, a briefcase-size piece of insulating foam from the external tank broke off and struck the leading edge of Columbia’s left wing and punctured a hole in the reinforced carbon-carbon panels of the wing’s thermal protection system. The purpose of the thermal protection system was to protect the shuttle from the 3,000-degree temperatures that are generated by the friction of reentering the Earth’s atmosphere, but after the debris strike, the compromised panels allowed superheated air to penetrate the wing, melting its internal structure. The wing sheared off and the shuttle broke apart in the sky.

At the beginning of the investigation, when they first started looking at this foam impact as the cause, I said, “No way. That can’t be it.” This foam was lighter than air. I could hit you over the head with a piece of it and you wouldn’t feel a thing. The truth is that bits of foam had been flying off that tank since the first shuttle flights. The external tank is like a gigantic thermos bottle filled with liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, which have to be kept at −297 degrees Fahrenheit and −423 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively. That’s what the insulating foam does. For the most part, given the extreme stress of launch, it adhered very well. But around the tank’s joints and valves, the foam had a tendency to flake off. The damage to the orbiter was never critical, so it came to be viewed as a maintenance issue, something to be patched up in turnaround for the next launch, and not a safety issue. We looked at the shuttle hitting these bits of foam like an eighteen-wheeler hitting a Styrofoam cooler on the highway. One is going to plow right through the other. The more flights that landed safely, the more that assumption became accepted as fact. But any engineer can tell you: Past success is not an indicator of future safety. The fact that something bad hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean the possibility of failure isn’t present, and relying on a good track record is no substitute for rigorous scientific testing.

This foam was as light as a feather, which leads one to assume that it’s harmless, but low-density objects slow down quickly once they lose propulsion. At the moment the foam broke loose from Columbia’s tank, the shuttle was moving at 1,568 miles per hour. The foam hit the wing 0.161 seconds after coming off, but in that microsecond it had slowed down to 1,022 miles per hour, which means the shuttle hit the foam with a relative velocity of over 500 miles per hour. If you run into anything at 500 miles per hour, I don’t care how light it is, it’s going to do some damage. Which is what the postaccident testing showed. An independent team of investigators took chunks of foam and shot them out of a cannon at the leading edge of a wing salvaged from the space shuttle Enterprise, causing everything from small cracks to gaping holes.

Perhaps the saddest part of the Columbia tragedy is that we might have been able to do something. While the shuttle was still in orbit, people on the ground were aware that there might be a problem. The debris strike was photographed during ascent and was first noticed by a group of engineers going over the launch footage on day two. From the photos, it was possible to tell that a debris strike had happened, but not how bad the damage was or if there was any damage at all. Since 107 was a science and research flight, it didn’t have a robot arm on board to inspect the wing. Discussions were had about doing a space walk to inspect the wing or having a defense department satellite do a flyby to take images, but those were very expensive and risky contingencies that would have disrupted the mission. Because of this blind spot we had—this belief that foam strikes weren’t dangerous—an official decision was made not to investigate the extent of the damage.

Another official decision was made as well: not to inform the crew. In the moment the feeling was: Even if we do find that there’s extensive damage to the wing, there’s nothing we can do to fix it while they’re in orbit. Either the crew risks reentry with the wing as it is or they stay stranded in space until they run out of life support. In hindsight, the investigation board concluded that if the damage had been identified early enough, another shuttle could have been launched in time to attempt a rescue mission. And if we’d known there was a hole in the wing, there’s no way we would have left Columbia’s crew there without putting another crew in harm’s way to try to save them. But we never reached that point because this collective blind spot kept everyone from seeing how bad the situation might be. Since it was believed nothing could be done about the problem—and since no one could be certain that a problem even existed—it was better that the crew not know. When I spoke to Ilan and Rick and the others on the last night of their mission, they were laughing and excited to see their families again. None of us knew that they were already doomed.

The Columbia tragedy is one of those situations where no one person is to blame but ultimately everyone is responsible. We had all allowed ourselves to become complacent about reentry. We were all guilty of underestimating the danger. There were also larger institutional problems with NASA itself, failures of communication, failures of oversight. Like most accidents, Columbia was 100 percent preventable. If proper safety protocols had been in place and been followed, our friends might still be alive today.

Before the shuttle could fly again, every one of those problems had to be addressed. We redesigned the external tank so that insulation wouldn’t keep flying off it. We improved the imagery on the shuttle for launch, putting high-definition cameras everywhere: on the tank, on the solid rockets, on the ground. That gave us eyes on every inch of the shuttle to see if anything went wrong during launch. We developed tools and techniques to inspect the shuttle for damage once in orbit. Now every flight would carry the robot arm and also a new device to extend the reach of the arm, an inspection boom with high-def cameras, lasers, and other sensors that allowed the crew to survey the entire ship. We developed repair techniques for spacewalkers to go out and repair damaged tiles.

The final component in this new recovery plan was the space station itself. It added another layer of inspections: You could flip the shuttle with the underside facing the station and do a close, thorough scan of every square inch. It’s also a safe haven. If you’re at station and you encounter a problem you can’t fix, the worst-case scenario is you stay there and catch a ride home with the Russians on the Soyuz or you wait for the next shuttle flight to come up and get you.

If the Columbia accident exposed NASA’s greatest weaknesses, the recovery from Columbia may have been NASA’s finest hour. No attempt was made to cover up the cause of the accident or deflect accountability. No question went unasked. No assumption went unchallenged. Every single aspect of the shuttle’s operations was taken apart, looked at, rethought, and rebuilt. We worked around the clock for two years straight in an all-hands-on-deck effort to understand what had happened and to prevent it from ever happening again. When I look back on it now, it was truly amazing what we accomplished. That superhuman effort was enough to put the shuttle back in operation in order to complete the work of assembling the International Space Station. Which was great, but in the end it wasn’t enough to save the shuttle program itself—and it wasn’t enough to save Hubble.

On January 14, 2004, President Bush announced what he called a “new vision” for America’s space program. That new vision was really a return to the old vision: finishing the space station, building a heavy-lift vehicle capable of taking us out of Earth orbit, back to the moon, and eventually to Mars. But this ambitious, long-term goal would require short-term sacrifice. The money to pay for it would come from retiring the shuttle in 2010 once the assembly of the space station was complete.

In the end, the shuttle was a victim of the compromises that gave birth to it. The shuttle was sold as routine, everyday access to space, but in hindsight that was a bold overstatement. It was always a dangerous, expensive vehicle to fly. Before Columbia, we calculated the odds of a total loss of shuttle and crew at about 1 in 150. After Columbia, that was revised to about 1 in 75. By contrast, the risk of losing a fighter jet in Vietnam was around 1 in 1,500. The orbiters were getting old and the program was expensive to maintain, and if we kept flying them, another accident was seen as inevitable.

At that point the United States had a huge amount of time, money, and national prestige invested in the International Space Station. We had obligations to our partner countries, which is one reason we stayed committed to its completion. But Bush’s speech didn’t say one word about Hubble. The rumor around the office was that Washington was going to kill the final servicing mission. Being able to fly the shuttle again was dependent on having a safe haven, which you only had if you went to station. But Hubble was 100 miles higher and on a different orbital path. The Hubble has a low orbital inclination. It flies 28.5 degrees from the equator. The ISS has a high orbital inclination. It flies 51.6 degrees from the equator. It’s easy to raise or lower the altitude of your orbit, but it takes an enormous amount of fuel and energy to change the inclination of your orbit in space. It’s actually easier to land and take off again at a different angle than to change directions in orbit, which means there’s no way to get from Hubble to station. And because it takes more fuel and energy to get up there, you have fewer resources to sustain you if something goes wrong.

At the same time, it seemed inconceivable that we wouldn’t go back. First, we still had to address the issue of deorbiting the telescope. The Hubble is the size of a school bus, but it lacks the propulsion necessary to perform a guided entry, meaning it could shower a major city with debris instead of being guided to break up over an ocean. When the Hubble was launched, the idea was that once its mission was over the shuttle would go up and bring it back so we could put it in a museum. Without that, we needed to go back to add some kind of steering mechanism to deorbit it safely.

Second, the amount of new science and research we’d lose without the final mission was staggering. We had two new instruments, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and the Wide Field Camera 3, which had already been built at a cost of $200 million. Like all of Hubble’s instruments, they were keys to unlocking more secrets of the universe, and we had them ready to go. Now we were going to shove them in a closet and say “Oh, well”? Abandoning the Hubble didn’t just mean forgoing future upgrades, either. The gyroscopes were starting to fail again and needed to be replaced or the telescope wouldn’t be able to point. Worse than that, the batteries were reaching the end of their life span. We estimated they had about three years left in them. Power is essential. None of the telescope’s instruments work without it. Power also keeps the telescope warm. Without heat, the instruments would freeze in the vacuum of space, and if they froze even once, that would be it. We’d be left with a useless hunk of metal orbiting 350 miles above Earth. If we canceled the final servicing mission, we were essentially saying, “It’s time to let Hubble die.”

One week after Bush’s speech, NASA made the announcement: Hubble was off the books. It was too dangerous, too risky. It was a unilateral decision. There was no discussion, no review, no panel to study the pros and cons. The backlash was immediate, and it was big. Across the board, nearly everyone in the scientific and aerospace community said it was a mistake. Maryland senator Barbara Mikulski, who represented the Goddard Space Flight Center, went to the press, denouncing the decision and saying she’d do everything she could to reverse it. In the House, Representative Mark Udall of Colorado introduced a bill calling for an independent panel of experts to review the cancellation.

Meanwhile, the team at the Space Telescope Science Institute made their own case for Hubble in the best way they could. They rushed out the release of its latest images: the deepest photographs ever taken of the universe. These pictures showed the most distant galaxies ever recorded, nearly ten thousand of them, some nearly as old as the universe itself. If we wanted to continue to study them and learn more about them, there was only one option: save Hubble.

Inside the astronaut office in Houston, watching these decisions being made up in DC, we were devastated. O’Keefe said he was canceling the flight out of consideration for our safety, but nobody asked us. We were still willing to go. As horrible as Columbia had been, the bottom line was that the accident didn’t add any new information. It’s not like anyone was surprised. We knew the risk was there.

For me, with Challenger, the danger had been more of an abstraction. Now it was right in front of me and I wondered how I would react. The truth is, it didn’t change anything. Carola and I had exactly one conversation about it. It was maybe a week after the accident. I asked her, “What do you think, now that this has happened?”

She said, “Well, we always knew it could. You’ve only flown once. Don’t you want to go again?”

“Yeah.”

That was the end of the discussion. Carola is a physical therapist. Every day she deals with people who headed out their front door and got in horrible car accidents and have to learn to walk again. She knows you can’t hide from bad things. You just have to keep doing what you’re doing. Astronauts go to space. That’s what we do. When Ernest Shackleton set off to cross Antarctica, I’m sure the odds were worse than 1 in 75. That didn’t stop him. In the shuttle era, NASA got caught up making nuts-and-bolts justifications about why we go to space when the real answer is just because. We go because we go. We do it because we do it. Because human beings have always done it. It’s the reason we first left the caves and poked our heads around the next corner to try to see what the world was about.

Exploration is what we do. It’s a basic human need, the drive to know more merely for the sake of knowing it. Understanding what’s happening at the other end of the galaxy is a path to understanding ourselves—understanding who we are and why we’re here. Five thousand years ago the Earth was small and flat and ruled by angry gods who lived on Mount Olympus. Today the Earth is a giant blue spaceship hurtling through an ever-expanding universe that’s 13.8 billion years old.

That’s why we go.

The beauty of Hubble is that it is maybe the purest expression of that idea that exists today. Not only is it an instrument that can see farther and deeper into the history of the universe than any other machine ever built, the knowledge that it provides belongs to everyone. The U.S. government has spent billions of dollars on this instrument, and then every year we take the knowledge it provides and we give it away. For free. It’s all public domain, and not just for Americans but for everyone in the world. It’s done solely for the enrichment of our fellow man, and that’s an incredible thing. The need to explore, in its purest sense, is always driven by the desire for knowledge itself, and that principle is so important that people are willing to risk their lives for it. Which is why O’Keefe’s announcement about Hubble was such a blow to everyone who cares about the future of space exploration, and it’s why we weren’t going to let our telescope die without a fight.

In April 2004, about four months after the final servicing mission was canceled, Grunsfeld called me up from DC. He said, “Mass, I’m talking to Goddard about a robot mission to save Hubble.” It was a bold idea. If it was too risky to send a crew, why not send a machine to perform the upgrades and repairs, one that could be operated from the ground? We still had the problem of deorbiting the telescope safely. We were going to have to send up a robot to resolve that issue anyway, so why not use that as a pretext to investigate and see if a robot could do more, like swap out batteries and instruments?

Someone in the astronaut office would have to lead the effort, and Grunsfeld told me that person had to be me. He said, “I need someone who knows robotics. I need someone who knows Hubble. Most important, I need someone I can trust. You’re the only person who fits that bill.” Normally, to start any new program in the astronaut office, you would call the head of the office and he or she would assign someone who was available. Grunsfeld wasn’t going to take that chance. He was going outside the normal channels and having a specific request come from the NASA administrator that he wanted me on the project. “That’s what’s going to happen,” Grunsfeld said. “So be ready.”

Sure enough, a few days later I ran into Kent Rominger in the hallway and he told me Grunsfeld was putting me on this robot mission. At the time, I was already CAPCOMing, working on contingency shuttle repairs, and doing EVA proficiency training. I asked which of my other duties this was going to replace. “None,” he said. “Just add this to your plate. Keep doing everything else, but this is a priority.”

I had a hunch what was happening: They were propping open a back door for us to get a manned servicing mission back on the books. I didn’t say that out loud, but that’s what I thought from the start. The plan in the meantime was to send up a robot arm equipped with special manipulators that could dock to the telescope and perform the repairs. I started putting together a team. My old ice cream–eating friend, Claude Nicollier, the Swiss James Bond, was a veteran Hubble spacewalker and a specialist in robotics. Ten years after he brought my display project into NASA, I called him up and told him I had a project for him. He signed on right away, and we were working together again. We started doing simulations in Houston, running tests up at Goddard. Some of Claude’s European sophistication started to rub off on me. I started drinking a lot of caffè latte.

The robot mission was an interesting exercise, and we learned a great deal from it, but the expense eventually killed the project. With all the different contingencies you’d have to plan and design for, it would have cost a bazillion dollars and you still wouldn’t get the same quality of repair. Replacing the gyros was too intricate a task for a robot to tackle. Even opening and closing the aft shroud doors was tricky. Ultimately, what the robot mission ended up proving was the value of astronauts. Astronauts can think on the spot, improvise solutions, communicate abstract thoughts. Robots can’t. If you design a robot to do A, B, and C, and then you get to space and it turns out the robot needs to do X or Y or Z, you’re out of luck. If you have a person with a human brain operating hands with opposable thumbs, you can shift gears on the fly, work the problem, devise a solution. As incredible as the shuttle and the station and the Mars rovers are, the most valuable piece of equipment you can have in space is a person.

In the end, the robot mission did one vital and critical thing: It kept the Hubble servicing team together and moving forward. Gene Kranz told me once that after Apollo was over, to keep his people in one place, he put them at Ellington Field until the shuttle program started. When a project gets dismantled, people disappear. They need jobs. They go work for other companies. They go somewhere and teach. If you let them scatter, you’re never going to get everybody back. All those skills, all that knowledge and institutional memory, it’s gone forever. If you lose the team, you lose everything. With Hubble, the day after the last flight was canceled, people were already sending out résumés, looking for new jobs. We made sure that as many of us as possible stayed put.

The robot servicing mission brought me back to life. After Columbia, for a while the job felt like nothing but death and misery. It took me a year to enjoy being an astronaut again, and the robot mission is what made that happen. My mood changed. I had a challenge, a purpose. I wasn’t going through the motions anymore. I started going to meetings at Goddard with the Hubble team. I was doing hands-on testing. I was having fun. Once it turned into a robot mission, the astronauts who wanted the last shot at Hubble and had been jockeying for position dropped out. They didn’t want to control a robot from the ground. They wanted to walk in space, so they left to go work on station flights. I was left working as a robot guy, and I was thrilled. It was right up my alley. I knew that telescope backward and forward. I liked working with the team at Goddard solving complex engineering problems. The robot mission also gave me the chance to be a leader in the office, to learn how to manage people. I realized my career wouldn’t move forward if I didn’t.

A few months into leading that team, what I realized was that, over and above my loyalty to NASA and to the astronaut office, my real loyalty was to Hubble. To Grunsfeld and Nicollier and the other Hubble Jedi in Houston. To Frank Cepollina and Ed Rezac at Goddard. To Ron Sheffield at Lockheed Martin. To Barbara Mikulski and Mark Udall in Congress. They were dedicated people. They shared a passion. They were a team. With each servicing mission the astronauts came in and became a part of the family for a year or two and then moved on, but the team would still be there. I wanted to stay with the team. Even when Hubble was canceled and grounded and off the books, I didn’t want to leave. Maybe that’s something I learned from forty years of being a New York Mets fan: No matter how bad it gets, you stick with your team and you never give up. We had this extraordinary group of people working together, and we weren’t going to let Hubble die. Losing seven close friends on Columbia had been a brutal reminder to everyone: You only have one life. You have to spend it doing something that matters. Even if I never flew in space again, if my work on that robot mission in any way helped bring back the Hubble, that would be my thing that mattered. That would be my chapter in the story of space.

The whole time I was working, in the back of my mind I never lost hope that we would get a manned mission back on the books. The status reports I filed on the robot mission, I would always end them by saying, “There is an undercurrent of hope that this will eventually be turned back into a space shuttle mission, but there is not a guarantee.” Then, on April 13, 2005, propping open the back door with the robot mission finally paid off. On that day Michael Griffin replaced Sean O’Keefe as NASA administrator. I liked O’Keefe, but he was the first to admit he wasn’t a space guy. He was a career politician, a presidential appointee. It wasn’t his style to take big gambles. Griffin was a space guy to his core. He was a former chief engineer at NASA, had been the head of the space department at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, and had done serious work at different aerospace contractors. He and Grunsfeld had been friends for years, and they both shared a love for Hubble.

Griffin was an outspoken, no-nonsense type of leader. From the second he showed up, it was clear there was a new sheriff in town. On the question of whether NASA should be focused on doing science experiments or exploring space, he didn’t leave any doubts about where he stood. In one of his earliest speeches to the troops, I remember him saying, “We’re not the National Science Foundation. We’re NASA. We go places.”

Griffin’s long-term goal was to get NASA back on the path of exploration, but he also knew that he was likely to have just three years on the job. A new president was going to be elected in 2008, and a new administrator would be appointed. Griffin wanted something important that could be accomplished during his tenure, something he could point to as his legacy. At that point the space station was close to finished, the shuttle program was already winding down, and the new program Bush had announced was still years away from being operational. So Griffin decided there was one thing he could do to leave a lasting mark. A few weeks after Griffin’s swearing in, Grunsfeld was down in Houston and he stopped by my office. “I talked to Griffin,” he said. “He wants Hubble. He wants us to find a way to go back.”