Friday, February 1, 2013

COMMENTARY: The Hard Choices

Above are the crew of the Columbia STS-107. (L-R) mission specialist David Brown, commander Rick Husband, mission specialist Laurel Clark, mission specialist Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist Michael Anderson, pilot William McCool, and Israeli payload specialist Ilan Ramon. All were killed when the shuttle disintegrated over Texas February 1st, 2003.

I honestly don't remember where I was when I heard that Columbia disintegrated over Texas. I remember crying, but that's all. 

What I hadn't known until ten years later was that NASA knew the astronauts were in trouble before the crash. Wayne Hale, the person who later got charge of the shuttle program, talked about the incident in his blog:  

"After one of the MMTs (Mission Management Team) when possible damage to the orbiter was discussed, he (Flight Director Jon Harpold) gave me his opinion: 'You know, there is nothing we can do about damage to the TPS (Thermal Protection System). If it has been damaged it's probably better not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don't you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done, until the air ran out?" 

This has to be the hardest decision anyone had to make. Imagine, working with people, knowing them, caring for them, learning a bit about them and their family...Knowing also that they were the best the US had to offer up for this mission, and realizing they were going to die and you had to make a choice of what to tell them.

I sat here and contemplated their choices. If the astronauts were told, they'd have minutes in a cabin of decreasing oxygen knowing they were going to die. Even if they were the best, the worst of their natures could come out. On the other hand, they went out on a high-note. I think they believed they were going to make it.

Of course, they didn't have a chance to say goodbye. But, I suppose they did so as they were leaving--just in case. Nothing comes without a price. I know the crews who took off for the stars were willing to pay. May they fly through the stars forever.

Rebecca McFarland Kyle, February 2013

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