From his Launch Control Center console 15 years ago on Feb. 1, 2003 Mike Leinbach watched the shuttle orbiter's engines fire to start its drop from orbit.
Columbia and its seven astronauts were coming home.
As launch director, Leinbach had given the final “go” for the STS-107 mission to blast off 16 days earlier. Now he was making his way to Kennedy Space Center’s runway with top NASA brass and astronaut families to celebrate the crew’s return.
Like others in Florida, the assembled crowd sensed something amiss when the twin sonic booms that always heralded crews’ arrival never rang out a few minutes before the planned touchdown at 9:15 a.m. ET.
Over loudspeakers, they heard Mission Control repeatedly radio Columbia commander Rick Husband, without reply.
Then at the scheduled landing time, a midfield clock ticked down to zero, and began ticking upward.
“Columbia should have been right in front of us, and it wasn’t there,” Leinbach recalled. “The fact that it wasn’t in front of us meant it was a bad day. It was not going to have a good outcome.”
The outcome could not have been worse: Husband, pilot Willie McCool, payload commander Michael Anderson, payload specialist Ilan Ramon and mission specialists Kalpana Chawla, David Brown and Laurel Clark were killed as Columbia broke apart during re-entry over East Texas and Louisiana.
NASA’s second shuttle disaster set in motion the program’s retirement in 2011, and the space agency remains a year or more from restoring an ability to launch astronauts.
But from the tragedy emerged a more hopeful and inspiring story that is the focus of a new book co-written by Leinbach: Bringing Columbia Home: The Untold Story of a Lost Space Shuttle and Her Crew.
The book recounts how in the hours, days and weeks after the accident, an army of 25,000 Americans — mostly ordinary, small-town citizens — and more than 140 federal, state and local agencies mobilized to search a vast area to recover Columbia debris and the crew’s remains.
“It’s the final story of Columbia, and it’s never been told in this level of detail,” said Leinbach, 64, of Scottsmoor, Fla., who partnered with author Jonathan Ward on the project. “It was really meant to honor the 25,000 people that helped us find the debris and the crew over those three months out there in Texas.”
While the missing sonic booms haunted Central Florida that Saturday morning, residents of East Texas awoke to a terrifying succession of rumbles, booms and pops as shuttle debris rained down from the upper atmosphere.
“Eighty-four thousand pieces, 84,000 sonic booms,” said Leinbach. “Some of them very loud, some of them so quiet you couldn’t hear. But every one of them broke the sound barrier.”
The heaviest pieces, pumps from shuttle main engines, hit the ground the farthest east at twice the speed of sound and buried themselves 12 feet deep in mud.
Residents’ immediate fears ranged from a nuclear explosion in Houston to a cross-country pipeline explosion to a mid-air plane collision.
It was a period Leinbach, who retired from NASA in 2011 and spent three years working on the book, calls “parallel confusion.”
“The people in Texas were dealing with, what is that?” he said. “Those of us back here in Florida waiting for Columbia to come home — and she never came home — we didn’t know where it was.”
Roger and Belinda Gay of Hemphill, population just over 1,000, were among the Texans who responded immediately.
The local sheriff asked Roger, commander of Hemphill’s VFW Post, to open the hall as a staging area that could serve food. His wife Belinda, head of the VFW Ladies’ Auxiliary, had been on her way to a baby shower but turned around to help.
“It went from an empty building to serving thousands of meals a day within a couple of days, because people just converged on the scene,” said Leinbach.
Hemphill resident and U.S. Forest Service employee Greg Cohrs’ day job was selling timber. He suddenly was thrust into a role leading debris recovery in the area, mapping out grids and organizing search teams.
“This regular guy came to NASA and was a key figure out there,” said Leinbach. “After the accident and upon reflection, he said it was God’s will to have him there.”
They were just a few examples of the way people and towns rallied in response to a national tragedy.
Wildland firefighters set up tent cities and did much of the painstaking searching through sometimes treacherous terrain in freezing weather across an area eventually narrowed to 120 miles long and 10 miles wide.
Locals housed, fed and did laundry for NASA teams and others working exhausting days trying to bring Columbia home.
“It was a community involvement out there like you’ve never seen,” said Leinbach. “The help that American heroes gave us out of the goodness of their hearts, because they knew it was the right thing to do, that’s a big takeaway.”
Only through writing the book, Leinbach said, did he come to fully understand and appreciate that heroic effort and sacrifice taking place far from the shuttles' home port at KSC.
“I had no idea what those people were going through to find the debris, in the cold and rain and sleet and thorns,” he said.
Hemphill residents whose lives were forever changed by the spaceflight disaster went on to establish a Columbia museum and a memorial in the town center that Leinbach will visit on the accident's anniversary. Its motto: “Their mission became our mission.”
The massive recovery effort, the largest land search ever, recovered 38% of Columbia, and crew member remains.
The book shares difficult events, like astronaut Mark Kelly, an FBI agent and local sheriff responding to a site where a jogger had reported seeing what might be the body of a deer or wild boar. A clergy member was called in to perform a short memorial service for the fallen astronaut.
But Leinbach said a point of pride in the book, which the astronauts’ families reviewed, was not to sensationalize details about their deaths.
“We had to tell the truth, but we didn’t have to tell the details,” he said. “No one needs to know the details.”
Truckloads of debris began returning each week to KSC, where Leinbach oversaw efforts to piece what was left of Columbia back together in a hangar near the runway, to help figure out what went wrong.
The answer became clear: Eighty-two seconds after liftoff, a suitcase-sized piece of foam broke away from the shuttle’s external tank and smashed a hole in the leading edge of Columbia’s left wing, investigators determined. Hot gasses breached the wing during re-entry through the atmosphere, causing the orbiter to lose control and break up.
Some engineers had expressed alarm at the foam strike seen during the launch, but mission managers concluded from limited data available that the damage was not catastrophic. As with smaller strikes seen on many previous shuttle missions, they believed it would simply mean more time getting Columbia ready for its 29th flight.
Bringing Columbia Home explains the effort to reconstruct the orbiter, and how NASA ultimately treated Columbia very differently than the Challenger accident in 1986.
“Challenger, we buried it and moved on,” said Leinbach, referring to Challenger’s resting place in a silo on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. “Columbia, we’re studying the debris for the effects of hypersonic re-entry on materials.”
A NASA loan program allows researchers to borrow and study pieces of Columbia, which are stored in the Vehicle Assembly Building. Leinbach said the program has helped at least three researchers earn doctoral degrees.
On Jan. 26, a day after NASA’s annual Day of Remembrance ceremony honoring fallen astronauts at the KSC Visitor Complex, Leinbach participated in a lessons learned program formally established at the spaceport.
Among the key lessons Leinbach says future programs must heed: Treat every flight like it’s your first. Listen to what the hardware is telling you. Don’t accept seemingly minor problems because they haven’t yet caused major problems. Don’t accept waivers if systems fail to meet safety requirements.
The best way to instill those lessons, he believes, is for new programs and startups to employ people who have lived through past accidents. But that doesn’t always happen.
Just recently, a startup space company — not one involved in efforts to launch NASA astronauts — sought Leinbach's advice after sustaining a hydrogen explosion on the ground. It turned out that work had been rushed because a team feared holding up an important milestone.
“Had they lived through a Columbia or a Challenger, they would have known better,” said Leinbach. “It was a classic wrong approach. That’s what gets you in trouble.”
Leinbach leads monthly tours that pass through NASA's "Forever Remembered" tribute to the Columbia and Challenger crews at the KSC Visitor Complex, often sparking discussions about this accident.
"You never get used to the fact that we lost them," he said.
As exhaustively as the Columbia disaster was investigated and reported on, Leinbach found none of the more than 100 people he and Ward interviewed for Bringing Columbia Home knew the whole story. Everyone knew pieces of it.
“We quickly realized there’s a much bigger story here than my little piece,” the former launch director said. “We hope we’ve told the whole story of the final story of Columbia.”