Mike Leinbach stood on the runway at 9 a.m., waiting for his crew to return.
This was the best part of being a NASA launch director at the Kennedy Space Center. Days earlier, he’d been the one to give the “Go!” that shot the space shuttle Columbia and its seven-member crew into orbit. On this Saturday morning, Feb. 1, 2003, his only job was to welcome them home.
An hour earlier, he’d listened as the Columbia re-entered the earth’s atmosphere on time with no problems. It should be bursting through the Florida sky around 9:12 with two thunderous claps—the telltale double sonic booms.
Leinbach listened. No thunder. Over loudspeakers, he could hear Mission Control in Houston repeatedly call Columbia’s crew:
The runway countdown clock ticked off its last seconds. My God, Leinbach thought. What happened to the Columbia and his friends?
Leinbach (Arch ’76, Engr ’81) and writer Jonathan Ward this January released the book Bringing Columbia Home to mark the 15th anniversary of the loss of the Columbia and its seven astronauts.
That February morning and the months that followed would be some of the most tense, most heartbreaking and most fulfilling of Leinbach’s 27-year career with NASA. He would help run the mammoth effort to find the crew’s remains and collect the tens of thousands of pieces of the shuttle that rained on Texas and Louisiana as it broke apart during its descent. He’d also help examine the wreckage to determine what caused the fatal ending.
Leinbach and others at NASA would also witness the best of the human spirit during the process. More than 25,000 people—paid workers and volunteers—would work on the recovery mission. Two men died when their helicopter crashed during one of their searches.
Leinbach always knew he had a book about NASA’s work with the Columbia, but “it was obvious that when we started to write the book, there was a huge story out in Texas, frankly, and its people.”
Leinbach grew up wanting to design and build things, but he was always interested in space. When he was 8, his family was on a road trip from its home in Northern Virginia to Pennsylvania. Near Gettysburg, Leinbach’s dad stopped on the roadside and cranked up the radio. They listened to the broadcast as America launched its first man into space, Alan Shepard, in the Mercury spacecraft.
Leinbach studied architecture and engineering at UVA and started working at NASA in 1984. He worked as a structural engineer and became a NASA test director after the explosion of the shuttle Challenger in 1986.
In his position, Leinbach got to know the astronauts; it was by design. After the Challenger explosion, NASA mandated more training in Florida for the astronauts. Leinbach and his wife, Charlotte, entertained them at their house.
He became particularly close with Ilan Ramon, the son of a Holocaust survivor and the first Israeli in space. They joked about the “anything-but-kosher” barbecued smoked sausages at one of their dinners.
But Leinbach couldn’t think about those memories on that February morning. He raced to a meeting to figure out what had happened to Ramon and the rest of the crew.
While Leinbach and his staff met, residents of east Texas—in another time zone—were hit by sound waves.
Houses shook, waking people from their sleep. One person thought a nuclear bomb had hit New Orleans, five hours away. Maybe the war was coming to the U.S.; America was just weeks away from invading Iraq.
One man swore it was the end of time.
Few knew that Columbia had been flying 230,000 feet above at 15,500 miles per hour.
Because of the shuttle’s speed, every piece of debris produced a sonic bomb as it fell over Texas—a constant rumble for 20 minutes as more than 84,000 pieces fell along a 250-mile-long, 20-mile-wide swath.
Local law enforcement posted officers by each piece of debris, not knowing what else to do as news networks looped footage of fireballs screaming through the sky.
Leinbach and his crew scrambled to get to the scene as quickly as possible.
Treasure hunters grabbed some of the shuttle’s shards and posted them on eBay. As the FBI converged on the scene, they shut down the hawkers. Meanwhile, one family found an astronaut’s helmet in its yard. It would take 10 days to find remains of all of the crew.
More than 100 federal and state agencies would swoop into the area. The small towns had few motels and people were sleeping in their cars.
Leinbach and his NASA team arrived at Barksdale Air Force base in Louisiana late Saturday night, checked into a rundown hotel and agreed to gather before sunrise.
He walked into his room that night and, out of habit, cut on the TV. The news anchors were discussing the disaster.
In the silence of the room, Leinbach recalls, he wept.
Ed Mango, the assistant launch director, had flown into Barksdale with Leinbach and started on the debris recovery effort. He was numb. Mango had been at Kennedy and monitoring Columbia’s approach. He saw the sensors in the left wing going haywire.
When he heard Houston resort to an emergency channel to try to reach the Columbia crew, “I knew something catastrophic had happened.”
That Sunday, he helped Leinbach organize the chaos.
“We had a group of people wanting to be a part of this [tragedy].”
A special team had the task of recovering the crew. Mango and NASA considered the safety of people on the ground. Remarkably, no one had been hit by the debris. But some of Columbia’s tanks contained dangerous propellants. The shuttle contained small explosives that could be used, for example, to blow open doors in an emergency.
NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency needed to find them before the public touched them.
Larry Ostarly was also part of Leinbach’s team. He was the civilian component, deputy program manager for United Space Alliance, which handled the contractors for the shuttle program.
Ostarly’s job in Texas was logistics. That Sunday morning, organizers realized that search parties needed handheld GPS systems to electronically tag each piece of debris before it was moved. The coordinates were translated into push pins on a map; Leinbach and others could see patterns of what parts of Columbia fell where. Ostarly’s people swarmed Walmarts and sporting goods stores to buy every portable GPS system they could find.
The Florida guys who’d flown in were not used to the cold and drizzly weather of an east Texas winter. Ostarly had to think about foul-weather gear.
Then the community came through in ways they never expected.
A cellular phone company established additional towers so that the searchers would have better reception. The Hemphill, Texas, VFW handled food: Residents of the town of 1,100 brought in chicken, cakes and salad and supplied up to 60,000 meals for the first 12 days, at no cost to the government.
And throughout the search, locals provided free bedrooms and washed searchers’ clothes after a long day of tramping through the woods.
“It was a tragic thing, but it’s interesting to see how people responded,” Ostarly said. “We had a group of people wanting to be a part of this.”
As parts of the shuttle were found and brought in, they were reassembled in a hangar at Barksdale. The NASA team tried to fit the pieces together as much as possible to solve the mystery of the disaster. About 38 percent of the shuttle was eventually recovered.
Ostarly would walk through the hangar every couple of days.
“Some pieces were round and shiny, and then you’d look at the landing gear and it looked like it had been rusting in the swamp for 200 years,” he said. “The most emotional I got was looking at all the debris at Barksdale.”
Leinbach headed back to Florida after a couple of weeks to help figure out what had happened to Columbia. Months of investigation revealed that a piece of foam about the size of a briefcase had broken off one of the fuel tanks. The lightweight material flying at high speed knocked off a protective tile on the shuttle’s wing.
Hot air then whooshed into a hole in the wing, melting it from the inside out. The shuttle went into a spin and started to disintegrate. It is believed that the astronauts lost consciousness quickly.
In 2004, Leinbach was awarded the prestigious Presidential Rank award, which recognizes senior professionals who demonstrate strength, integrity and a commitment to public service.
NASA flew successful shuttle missions until 2011, when the agency retired the program. Leinbach retired too.
Over the years, other books came out about the Columbia—most within a year of the accident. Leinbach says he’d worked on an outline but admits he didn’t have the discipline to pull a book together.
Then he met the author Jonathan Ward, who had written two books on NASA and its space programs. With him, Leinbach felt he could write a book that would provide more context and research—and tell a crucial part of Columbia’s story.
“This was the opportunity to honor those 25,000 people who worked to bring the Columbia and her crew home.”