WHAT REALLY HAPPENED TO COLUMBIA

By Jerry Woodfill

 

 

This, the first Thursday in May, 2005, is designated the National Day of Prayer. Such a day causes one to reflect on prayer, on  God’s keeping and care for all of us. For me this concerned the loss of our beloved Columbia astronauts.  What prompted my reflections was agreeing to be a prayer “backup” for one of our Johnson Space Center astronauts should he be unable to attend.  Sometimes, those in our astronaut corps have unscheduled duties interfering with offsite events.  Today, our astronaut came and prayed a terrific prayer for our space program as well as the crew scheduled to liftoff in July.  The July mission would be the first since Columbia’s loss February 1, 2003.  

In years past, I had prayed as a substitute for an absent astronaut, but not today.  Nevertheless, the chance that I might be called on led to the reflections which follow. These deal with that heart-wrenching event of more than two years ago, Columbia ’s demise.

In several weeks, June 14th, I’ll celebrate my 40th anniversary as a NASA employee. In 1965, my workplace had been called the Manned Spacecraft Center but now is known as the Johnson Space Center.  In the course the past four decades, I’ve experienced the “thrill of our victories and the agony of our defeats,”  the landing of Eagle, July 20, 1969, the rescue of Apollo 13, April of 1970, the launch of Columbia, April 12, 1981, and the successes of our space station endeavors but conversely: the lost of  Gus Grissom and his Apollo One crew, January 27, 1967 in a dreadful launch pad fire, the tragedy of Challenger, the morning of January 28, 1986, and finally, the sorrowful reentry of Columbia, Saturday morning, February 1, 2003.   Whether there were cheers or tears, the underlying hand of God was always evident. 

So one might wonder, “How can God be present in something so horrific as what we as a nation, and especially, a NASA community, experienced watching Columbia’s fiery, fatal reentry over Texas that Saturday in 2003?”   That’s what I had wanted to share at the Noon service should I have been asked. 

At the onset of my NASA career, I’d been assigned the spacecraft warning systems for the Apollo program.  As such, I was monitoring my system at the space center the day Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.  Similarly, on that April 13th, 1970 evening,  I heard in my headset, “Houston, We’ve Had a Problem.”   In the latter instance, what I experienced participating in the Apollo 13 rescue led to an understanding that prayer does make a difference.  I was so impressed with Apollo 13’s outcome that I began a search for the God of the Bible.   My search was rewarded one Saturday morning in February of 1972. I responded to Christ’s call at a meeting of Christian Business Men in Houston, Texas. 

Since that time, an inner motivation compelled me to share those miraculous events which brought our Apollo 13 crew home safely.  Not being an ordained pastor, or Bible teacher, evangelist, or even a church deacon, my role has been to simply share what God did.   This led to more than 600 such opportunities in the two decades subsequent to that week in April 1970.  Yet, the testimony had been of lessening interest as Moon landings, were replaced by the Shuttle and Space Station in the public eye.   Apollo was deemed astronomic antiquity.   My wife even commented, “Put your Apollo 13 slides away, it happened too long ago.”   But God resurrected the testimony when Tom Hanks and Ron Howard released the movie APOLLO 13,  a Hollywood block-buster, which almost  won the 1995 academy award for best picture of that year..  

No, I wasn’t cast in the movie though there is a mention of a “Jerry”.  I think that Jerry was supposed to be my friend Jerry Bostick whose son Mike worked for Ron Howard.   Mike  suggested Ron make a movie of Jim Lovell’s novel about Apollo 13.  Mike had once been in my Sunday School class at the local Methodist Church.   Jerry Bostick, Mike’s dad, served as a technical advisor and was the author of the quote: “FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION.”  But I like to believe that the “Jerry” called for was sort of a generic Jerry. I was one of at least four Jerry’s (and the least of them) who participated in the rescue.  

However, I was most  disappointed that no one had consulted me about all the specific prayers answered to rescue Apollo 13.   After all,  I’d been sharing them for 20 years in hundreds of meetings.  “Lord,  this isn’t fair,”  I fretted, “Don’t you want people to know about what You did?”   The Lord didn’t seem to answer my complaint, except to remind me of  Scripture, the verse in Proverbs, “that He would make a way for each of us to exercise our gift.”  

Despite the 1995 rebirth of interest in  the Apollo 13 testimony,  by 2002, again, requests for the account were infrequent, until a most unusual thing happened in the summer of 2002.    An e-mail message came to me from a company in Hollywood affiliated with Universal Studios.  Apollo 13, the movie, was to be re-released as an IMAX film.   Since Apollo 13’s initial release,  Christians had founded a new company to encourage Christian media outlets to advertise Hollywood movies with inspirational content.  APOLLO 13 was such a movie. They had searched the Internet and discovered my SPACE ACTS web site which featured how prayers rescued Apollo 13.  “Would you be our national spokesman  to the Christian media for Apollo 13 IMAX?” 

During the Summer and early Fall of 2002, I conducted 20 interviews to that end, of course, without financial compensation.  You’ll still find web sites featuring comments about prayer bringing Apollo 13 home as a result of those interviews.   Then one day, the mailman delivered a package, a long cardboard tube.  Opening it, I found a huge movie poster  featuring the APOLLO 13 IMAX film with Tom Hanks’ picture as Jim Lovell. An  inscription was written in the center of the poster…”Jerry, Thanks for all your help!  RON HOWARD.”  I repented, “Yes, Lord…you made it possible to share what you had done.” 

But I think the real purpose of delaying those Apollo 13 testimonies has to do with what happened February 1, 2003, especially, during the ensuring days, weeks, and years.  As a result of the tragic Columbia loss, once again,  NASA and those involved became a  national focus.   Like with Apollo One and Challenger, media interest increased exponentially in a matter of hours. When I came to work that Monday morning, there were messages for me. The same Christian media groups wanted to talk about Columbia from a Christian’s perspective.  This was not about me.   Rather, it was about the Columbia, it’s crew and their families.  It was about the Lord and prayer in the midst of a sorrowful tragedy. 

This morning, thinking about the national day of prayer, and what I might share, I thought about one of those interviews.  It was with Billy Graham’s program DECISION TODAY and HOUR OF DECISION.  I’d done the interview just after returning from the memorial service for the crew of Columbia. The service had been held that Tuesday  morning, February 4th 2003 at the Johnson Space Center. President Bush had given a wonderful spiritual eulogy of each member of the crew.  Each had sacrificed his or her live for America, science, and space exploration. 

Nevertheless, I thought, what glory does God get from the knowledge that seven loved ones are now deceased, that a three billion dollar vehicle is refuse scattered across the state of Texas?   As a Christian, I soon realized that such a story  is altogether difficult to address, especially to the media whether Christian or secular.  This was altogether opposite to those interviews done weeks before to testify of God’s goodness in answering prayers for  Apollo 13.  Because the audio of that interview remains on the internet, this morning I was able to replay what I had said more than two years ago.  It’s on Billy Graham’s  HOUR OF DECISION website in the archives as the April 6, 2003 program though it first was heard on the DAY OF DECISION program aired Thursday February 6, 2003.  If you are interested in what I shared that day.  Here is the link to it: Click hear to hear the interview.  Following what I shared is a message by Billy Graham about the Scripture John 3:16.  His message is an outstanding one  that you will be much encouraged to hear. The remarkable thing about that interview was how God answered prayer for the Columbia families, NASA, and our nation.  

Uncertain of  what to share, I started by asking  for Billy Graham’s audience to pray three specific prayers: 1) That the families of the Columbia crew would somehow be comforted by God. 2)That somehow, someway, we, NASA, would know specifically what had caused the accident so that  the problem could be corrected to assure future men and women’s lives were not lost, and finally, 3) That somehow, someway God would take this terrible tragedy and make something good come from it for His glory.

Those prayers were answered miraculously.  Indeed, they were equal or greater testimonies than the account of how prayer rescued the crew of Apollo 13: 

1) In regard to praying for encouragement and comfort for the Columbia crew’s families:  The Columbia crew had an onboard video recorder to capture daily events in their operations as a team of astronauts.   Scores of video tape cassettes were collected and stowed during the course of the mission, yet, the only one found playable was the last recorded by those on board, just before reentry. Considering the extreme reentry heat of 3000 plus degrees F, it is unbelievable that mylar based video tape could survive! And what a wonderful account the tape   was!  Through it, the Columbia families viewed their loved ones doing what they were called to do…to explore the world of space and science with purpose, poise, and courage. 

The crew expressed such joyfulness, respect and appreciation for one another that no one could doubt that they were doing what they had always dreamed of doing.  In spite of the tragedy, they had run their course and finished it fulfilling their dreams.  Such a movie was a more loving and inspirational benediction to lives well lived than any pastor, priest or rabbi could utter in a memorial service.  Indeed, that first prayer was answered in a unique and loving way by the Lord.  In fact, family members have since reported other surviving items which uniquely comforted them. Our Lord had set aside that single video cassette and other items to serve as a last farewell to the families of Columbia.

2) The second petition requested of Billy Graham’s listeners was also answered miraculously.  The petition had been that NASA be able to know  for sure what had happened.  This was essential in order to fix the problem which caused the tragedy. Knowing technically the cause would assure that future Shuttle crews could safely return to orbit the Earth.   

While there were cameras photographing the exterior of  Columbia during ascent, no picture were taken of the exterior on orbit, and there were no exterior pictures of reentry.  (There was one extremely low resolution photo taken by an Air Force ground based camera while Columbia descended earthward over New Mexico.)   The only means flight control and forensic analysts had of assessing the exterior had to be through recorded data from sensors on board Columbia positioned behind the space ship’s skin.

While it was true that particles of the external tank’s insulation were pictured raining down on Columbia during ascent, the was not altogether exceptional from other missions.   Apparently, insulation separating from that tank was not a new phenomena.   But why would it have been the source of Columbia’s demise?   Was it really the cause?   Somehow, a “silver bullet” was needed to confirm it as the source. For analysis purposes, it was fortuitous  that the breakup had come over land rather than the Pacific Ocean.  The ocean would surely  have negated any hope of a thorough investigation. 

I thought back to the Challenger tragedy and the loss of the vehicle during ascent.  Shortly after Challenger’s loss, a group of us had prayed that the OEX (Orbiter Experiment)  Recorder could be found.  We knew that it could provide extremely telling data of Challenger’s status up to and at the moment of the explosion.  I had been the OEX data manager.   The data I was responsible for was on that  recorder.   Initially, from photos taken of Challenger’s explosion, it seemed unlikely that the recorder had survived.   Nevertheless, God had made a way.  The recorder was found along with the crew in the reinforced super structure of the cabin framework.  (For the account of how God helped in the instance of the Challenger analysis, go to:  http://www.spaceacts.com/TRACT51L.html

for information.)

But, for Columbia , the OEX program was long since ended.  It had served to test out the performance of the Shuttle orbiter on its maiden voyages.  I had long since been assigned to other projects in the ensuing years.   To my knowledge, there was no longer an OEX recorder or other OEX sensors on any Shuttle.  It is interesting that the only orbiters outfitted with those  OEX  recorders  and their sensors had been the Challenger and the Columbia.   “As the heavens are higher than the Earth so are His ways higher than our ways” is a Scripture that has been a constant reminder of my insignificant understanding of God’s plans and purposes.    Evidence of God’s work is  that despite an engineering order to remove all the OEX measurements from Columbia, some 700 plus remained.  Many of these were temperature sensors behind the leading edges of Columbia’s wings.  These temperature measurements continued to be recorded by the OEX recorder on each Columbia mission.

If, as with Challenger, that OEX recorder could be found, a treasure-trove of forensic data would result.  As a result of that second prayer prayed by Billy Graham’s listeners,  IT WAS MIRACULOUSLY FOUND, weeks later, in a pristine state such that it could be flown again.   There it was, Columbia’s OEX recorder, about 500 yards west of Hwy. 96 near Hemphill, Texas, in a  field  imbedded in soft earth!   One of my colleagues came into the office saying,  “This has got to be a miracle!”  I agreed and shared about how prayer had been responsible.

Its data proved to be many times more beneficial than what had been recorded on Challenger.   Those  OEX temperature sensors, that had not been removed despite the engineering order, proved invaluable.  They were the ideal witness of what was going on with the leading edge of the left wing.    The photos of the left wing during ascent showed insulation striking the leading edge around 86 seconds into the mission.  The OEX data showed the correlation of temperatures rising dramatically at the same time at that same location. Likewise, on descent, as the hot molecules of the atmosphere began to strike that same location,  again temperatures rose at an alarming rate. The OEX recorder and the temperature sensors confirmed the likely cause of the tragedy.  

Insulation falling from the external fuel tank had punctured the leading edge of Columbia ’s left wing causing the eventual destruction of the vehicle on reentry.  This was the irrefutable proof  Billy Graham’s listeners had prayed for. Now, NASA knew exactly what had happened. 

3) But, I believe, it was the third prayer’s answer which has had the greatest impact.  God demonstrated his ability to make something positive come from a tragic circumstance. Because I believe according to Romans 8:28 that God has a “purpose” of  ”the working together for good of ALL things” whether they be tragic or triumphant,  I have never accepted the view that God had any part in causing any of  NASA’s tragedies.  Why would a loving Father want any harm to come to His children? Like any parent faced with an unfortunate accident, He would do everything possible to restore, comfort, and heal those who were hurting. 

In the Billy Graham interview, I remembered commenting  on Columbia  descending on Texas rather than elsewhere.  In effect,  the final resting place for the vehicle and its crew had become the Lone Star State. Despite 40,000 plus pieces of refuse falling from above, no one was injured or killed.  

Several days after the event, I noticed the state’s license plate.  Perhaps, what I noticed is either chilling  or comforting depending on one’s view of the tragedy. Was license plate  meant to be prophetic or comforting?  The Shuttle is depicted in the upper left  descending toward  oil derricks and range riders, a perfect depiction of the Lone Star State and what happened. Each time I pulled up to a stop light behind a Texas license plate, I was reminded to pray for the Columbia families. Seeing the orbiter descend toward Texas was a reminder of our state’s affection for what they had done for each of us.    My wife is from Nacogdoches, where the search for Columbia and her crew was launched.  The unity and prayers of those in the Lone Star State was wonderful.

In the coming months, a massive search was undertaken beneath Columbia’s reentry footprint  over Texas. Thousands joined in the search for  Columbia ’s remains.    Often search parties would launch their efforts by holding hands and praying.  Their prayers were like mine: for God’s help  to comfort the families, to assist NASA in understanding what happened, and to bring good out of tragedy.  Some of those Texans even gave their lives in the search. A helicopter crew searching the Big Thicket was tragically  lost.

And I can’t help but remember the Gospel singer Steve Green, a friend of Commander Rick Husband, giving a Gospel Concert conducted in remembrance of Columbia’s crew at the Grace Community Church near NASA.  Rick Husband, Mike Anderson and their wives were members of that church near the space center.  Evelyn Husband and Sandy Anderson gave testimony of answered prayer similar to what I’ve shared here.   Evelyn and Sandy became living testimonies for their deceased husbands.  

Rick’s and Mike’s faith was recounted  as examples of Christ’s working in their astronaut husbands’ lives.   Through conventions of Women of Faith and other events, these ladies spoke as though Mike and Rick were before the audiences.  They truly exemplified the words of the Apostle Paul, that “Ye are our witnesses known and read of all men…” (II Cor. 3:2,3)    Then, there was Evelyn’s book about Rick and their lives as a Christian family, HIGH CALLING.   This book like that authored by Todd Beamer’s  widow of the 911 tragedy, LET’S ROLL,  affected many lives for the Lord, encouraging all who read it to embrace Christ as Lord and Savior.   The passing of Rick and Mike became a powerful witness that such is simply a portal to heaven to those that believe in Christ as Lord.  How many thousands have entered into that saving faith in Christ, we will only know when we, too, reach heaven.   This is, for me, the most outstanding answer to that third request of Billy Graham’s DECISION TODAY listeners.  There will be a  “great cloud of witnesses” that we’ll  meet one day along with Mike and Rick.   Those witnesses will be present because of  Rick, Mike, Evelyn, Sandy and  other members of the Columbia crew and families.

Now I know why I was not asked to offer a  substitute astronaut prayer. These recollections and the subsequent prayer would have been much too long.  But I want to close with a final remembrance relating to today’s National Day of Prayer service. The last two times I had attended were memorable because of  the astronaut prayer, who had prayed. .   It had been none other than Mike Anderson on one of those occasions.    Mike had prayed boldly for his country, it’s space program and citizens in the name of His Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.   That’s the only time I’d met Mike.   But, who would have known, least of all, Mike, that God would call him home on his Columbia Mission?  Then I remember, the next year’s 2003 May service, at the same location, for the same purpose to lift up our nation and its space program.  The speaker was not Mike this time.  It was Sandy Anderson,  Mike’s wife.  To this day, I remember one petition she uttered,  “Lord, give us backbones of steel.”  May that be each of our prayers in the face of such tragedy as at times befalls our nation and its citizens.    Whether we face a 911 attack or altogether unexpected circumstance, Lord Jesus, give each of us and especially our nation a backbone of steel to be over comers as You overcame.

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