On Feb. 1, 2003, the Columbia space shuttle went silent upon re-entry. Here are the principal details about the accident, the recovery of the wreckage and human remains, the reassembly, the discovery of the cause, and the consequences for the shuttle program.
Leinbach, in whose first-person voice we hear this account, was the launch director for the Columbia mission; co-author Ward is an authority on space exploration and author of two previous works on the subject (Countdown to a Moon Launch, 2015, etc.). Chronological in approach, the story begins with the silence from the shuttle and the fear—and certainty—on the ground that the worst had happened. The shuttle broke apart, scattering debris across 250 miles of East Texas and Louisiana, an accident that could have been far worse, as the authors note. No one on the ground was injured, though even a small change in the breakup could have sent the wreckage spilling into cities. The authors follow the sequence carefully and chronicle in great detail the search and recovery of the wreckage (eventually more than 60,000 pieces) and human remains, a search that ultimately cost millions of dollars and involved some 25,000 people, from private citizens to personnel from a myriad of local and federal agencies. The authors describe the hunt for the human remains, but, humanely, they do not tell us exactly what that entailed. Instead, we hear, for example, a poignant story about a watch found and returned to a spouse. The authors are careful to credit individuals who played key roles and take care to describe and explain what caused the crash, a conclusion possible only after careful reassembly and analysis. They also discuss subsequent shuttle missions and the ultimate demise of the program.
A gripping account of a fatal tragedy and the impressive and deeply emotional human response that ensued.