SPACE CENTER, Houston - Engineers in Mission Control never lost their composure even as they lost hope that space shuttle Columbia would make it safely home.
Conversations between the flight controllers, released Tuesday, suggests the engineers were waiting helplessly at Mission Control while Columbia came apart on the threshold of space, scattering debris across two states and killing seven astronauts.
quickly shifted his attention from landing the craft at the Kennedy
Center in Florida to saving computer data that might help experts learn
what destroyed shuttle.
Thirty minutes before the landing, Cain was concerned about which end of the Kennedy runway Columbia commander Rick Husband would use to guide the shuttle to landing, a relatively minor issue.
In fact, there was no hint of any problem until the final six or seven minutes of the flight when Jeff Kling, the maintenance, mechanical arm and crew systems officer, reported a sudden and unexplained loss of data from spacecraft sensors.
"I just lost four separate temperature transducers on the left side of the vehicle, the hydraulic return temperatures," Kling said. "Two of them on system one and one in the ETES systems 10 and 3."
Cain quickly asked if there was anything common to the sensors and got bad news in reply. Kling said there was no commonality, suggesting there was a general failure instead of a single system.
Moments later, more bad news. Mike Sarafin, the guidance and navigation officer, announces Columbia's wing is encountering drag, or increased wind resistance.
Cain, still hopeful, asks if everything else is normal and Sarafin assures him, "I don't see anything out of the ordinary."
There is a short indistinct call from the spacecraft and, almost at the same time, Kling says the landing gear tires have lost pressure.
Capsule communicator Charlie Hobaugh, then addresses the spacecraft: "And Columbia, Houston, we see your tire pressure messages and we did not copy your last.
Husband's response - "Roger, buh -" - is abruptly cut off. It is 7:59 a.m. CST.
In short order, flight controllers begin reporting a litany of bad news. There is evidence of small collisions on the tail, and signals are cutoff from the nose landing gear and from the right main landing gear. Then more sensors are lost and the drag increases to the left.
Hobaugh begins a series of radio calls to Columbia. There is no response as the minutes tick down toward a planned landing at the Kennedy Space Center.
"MILA (the Kennedy spacecraft communication center) is not reporting any RF (radio frequency) at this time," says Bill Foster, a ground controller.
"OK," says Cain, who then asks hopefully when a radar signal was expected.
"One minute ago, flight," comes the response from Richard Jones, flight dynamics officer.
The communication checks continue. So does the silence. A radar station near the Kennedy center then says it is putting its radar in a "search mode."
"We do not have any valid data at this time," said Jones. He said there was a "blip" but it was bad data.
Then a long pause, a silence of despair. Then Cain says the final words, the phrase that marked the lack of hope: "Lock the doors."
This meant nobody
Mission Control or even make phone calls. For the next several hours,
engineers have to ignore the certain loss of the crew and store the
in their computers, finish reports and then write personal accounts of
what they saw, heard and did Feb. 1.