- Status Report
- Mar 22, 2023
Letter to Return To Flight Team From OSF AA Bill Readdy
July 12th, 2003
Yesterday at the Bethesda Naval Hospital our Administrator was joined by a group of astronauts from
the Navy, as well as individuals who serve on his leadership team. They were present to dedicate the
Naval Hospital’s newly remodeled auditorium and training facility in honor of STS-107 mission
specialist, Captain Laurel Blair Salton Clark, USN.
Both the Navy and the Bethesda Naval Hospital did superbly in memorializing one of their own.
Laurel Clark wore many hats during her career: that of naval officer, physician, diver, submarine
medical officer, flight surgeon and now, most recently astronaut — explorer of the newest and
harshest frontier, space.
Regarding the possibility of risk associated with her many careers, a quote was read — one of Laurel’s
“A ship is safe in harbor, but then, that’s not what ships are for.”
During the dedication ceremony, a young petty officer did a very emotion-filled recital of a poem he
had written. The images he painted brought back many thoughts we all may have thought over
these past few weeks and months. His words spoke of soaring to new heights and of one’s
willingness to make personal sacrifices for others in the cause of exploration. And, as one explored
such wonders, about the compelling quest to understand these new and unknown things.
As I sat and listened, some thoughts came to mind.
It has been exactly four months since we all stood together on that Wednesday afternoon on the hill
at Arlington National Cemetery. On that cold, blustery afternoon, we paid our final respects to one of
our own: Astronaut Laurel Clark.
As the words finished, Taps sounded, and then Hornets roared overhead – with one aircraft lighting
the afterburners and departing the flight of four in a ‘missing man’ formation. The flyby, with the last
notes of Taps lingering, left me with a very hollow feeling – as it had already done far too many times
in days – and years – past. The memories and emotions of waiting by the runway at KSC and being
with the Columbia families that Saturday morning in February was simply too fresh and too raw.
Following that moving ceremony I went back to my office at NASA Headquarters. I was so very, very
angry. I was angry with myself. Angry with everyone around me. Angry with the world in general.
The system had failed. We had failed. I had failed. I felt the need to DO SOMETHING.
Obviously, I needed to stop dwelling on the oh-so-recent, searingly painful and tragic days and
weeks gone by. I needed to try and put behind the troubling days and weeks – a period that had
flashed by in what I can only describe as a sometimes tearful, always sleep-deprived blur of a
marathon as we flew from memorial service to memorial service, to East Texas and to the Kennedy
Space Center where the debris was already accumulating and being assembled and then back to DC
just to start the cycle all over again.
That afternoon I signed off on the final version of the Return to Flight tasking memo. This letter, and
the guidance it contained, was a tall order indeed — for all of us. But it was one that I knew would
help us all focus on the future. And in the process of regaining our focus, it would serve to honor our
debt to both the Columbia crew and their families.
I remembered some words from National Cathedral where the Columbia crew was memorialized.
“When it gets dark, the stars come out. When it gets the darkest, the stars shine the brightest. You
don’t notice the immensity of the black void which is the universe around us, only the magnificence of
the stars that shine down on us lighting the way.”
Since March 12th you all have moved out very smartly, indeed. I am very proud of what you have
done – as individuals, and as a team. You all have become our newest, brightest stars and give us
all confidence we can get return to flight done safely and expeditiously.
As we look back and look forward, there are a few items to review…
- The RTF Team is in place and the development of an action plan is well on its way.
- Our contractor leadership has been included in our processes at the highest levels.
- The Columbia Recovery effort was successfully completed. An unprecedented achievement by so many federal, state, local and volunteer organizations.
- The Columbia Reconstruction – both physically in the RLV hangar at KSC – and virtually in the 3D CAD files – has been completed.
- NAIT/CAIB testing of RCC has more or less conclusively determined the cause of the accident.
- ET insulation redesign of the bipod ramp area has successfully concluded PDR and CDR is only weeks away.
- RCC panels are being inspected and new panels have been ordered.
- EVA techniques are being developed to enable repairs to be performed on orbit.
- TPS and RCC repair techniques are being developed.
- ISS Expedition 6 is safely home and Expedition 7 is entering their tenth week on orbit.
- The Covey Task Group has been empanelled and will help us with our RTF implementation through STS-114 FRR.
- The Columbia Accident Investigation Board has completed its field work and relocated to DC.
- The final report is in preparation and expected to be released in August.
- On orbit assessment techniques have been developed.
- An agreement was reached with NIMA to maximize the use of National assets to assess our space shuttles while on orbit.
- The STS-114 crew is currently training.
- The Atlantis is being prepared for RTF.
- I’m sure there’s much, much more that each of you all could add.
We have made significant changes in the personnel assigned to leadership positions throughout
NASA’s Space Flight Enterprise. The importance of these new assignments cannot be overstated.
We are forging a new leadership team at NASA whose impact will be felt for many, many years to
come. First and foremost that impact will be brought to bear on Return to Flight.
In so doing, we shall define not only the future of our Space Shuttle program – but also the course of
NASA itself. Indeed, we aim to take this occasion to alter the course of the human space exploration
of space. In the process we will also redefine ourselves.
We’ll show the President, the Congress, and the American public – all of those who have trusted us
with this incredible responsibility – how tough we are. We’ll also show them how good we can be –
and yet still get better at what we do by executing Return to Flight in a deliberate, milestone-driven,
data-supported approach. We will strive to make ‘three yards in a cloud of dust’ again and again.
That’s the only way we can restore the credibility of our Space Shuttle system, NASA’s human space
flight program, and our Agency with the ultimate stake holders, the American people. And as we do
this, the rest of the world – the entire international community – will be watching. We will set the
standard for such things — we have no choice. We must live in the rarified world where the minimum
passing grade is always 100 percent.
When the going got really tough, many here and elsewhere from inside the NASA/Contractor team
and from among our colleagues in other agencies as well as the American public eagerly leaned
forward and answered the call – without being asked. They did so instinctively because to do so was
perhaps in their blood, perhaps more what they knew was expected during the good times of triumph
but more importantly during the extraordinarily challenging times of tragedy.
That said, this is only the ‘end of beginning’ rather than the ‘beginning of the end’. The CAIB Final
Report will come out very soon. The report will question us at all levels — from the tech on the OPF
floor to the Administrator himself. The report will question our professionalism, dedication, attentionto-
detail and our commitment to flight safety. It will sting and insult us all down to our very core. It will
cause all of us to dig down very deep to find some reserve of devotion, commitment, and energy to
sustain us through the very tough days ahead.
Long forgotten will be the many, many scores of safely and successfully accomplished missions.
There will be days – weeks – when Congress and the media will mount their bully pulpits and rail
righteously at how careless, callous and indifferent all of us must have been to allow Columbia and
her valiant crew to be lost so needlessly. And whatever we could say in our own defense, no matter
how true, will fall on mostly deaf ears.
We cannot let fear of criticism stop us from doing what we need to do or allow the critics to cow us
into inaction. We shall not spend a single minute being defensive. Time spent in that pursuit is time
wasted not fixing the many complex problems we must deal with to return to flight.
“It is not the critic who counts;
not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles,
or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, who strives valiantly; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at best, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
We have a very long, tortuous, uphill climb ahead of us. At some point, all of us will falter and lose
heart, if only for a moment. I will, you will, we all will. We will also bounce back. When I have needed
a boost, I have gotten it from one of you out there, or from the knowledge that all of you out there
are so very committed to RTF. The true strength of our team is that someone will always be there to
pump you back up, help you out, and put you back in the game. We are indeed ‘all in this together’.
Just remember the wedge of geese trading out the lead role and moving up when one of the leaders
starts to tire.
Our individual and collective patience has been sorely tested. It will be again and again. Our
expertise, professionalism, commitment and resolve will be questioned. Our credibility will be on trial
as it has been since the days immediately following the Columbia accident just as it was after the
Apollo fire and the loss of Challenger.
We will be called upon to explain things again and again to people who never seem to understand or
appreciate, much less applaud our successes – but yet are capable of becoming instant experts
when it comes to our failures and assigning blame.
We will be questioned, and rightfully so in my opinion, as to whether we are worthy of this sacred trust
to explore and discover on behalf of the people of this great land. I KNOW in my heart of hearts that
we are worthy of this trust, but although the court of public opinion does matter, it is not the only
judgment we must consider and endure.
The harshest judge will be the person staring back at you in the mirror. Don’t shrink from the
challenge – but don’t be afraid to ask for help as you do – or offer it to others who may need it – even
if they can’t muster the courage or humility to ask.
“Believe. No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or
opened a new heaven to the human spirit.”
The jury is still out with regard to NASA’s conduct of human space flight. Let there be no
misunderstanding on this: we are not out of the swamp yet – nor will we be even after we return to
flight. This will be a process that we will need to recalibrate and recertify each and every day. We will
have to earn it back one day at a time, one launch at a time, one mission at a time and one landing
at a time. Each and every day we must rededicate ourselves to safely returning to flight. Each day
we should ask ourselves, “What have I done on Return to Flight today?”
All of us will not be capable of making the journey back to flight – and beyond. Some will choose not
to continue. Perhaps they may choose that path because they are tired or spent or feel they have
contributed enough already.
While some will not have the heart or courage to continue, so many others among you will step
forward – and step up spectacularly. Either way, by enduring this trial successfully in the coming
months, one day at a time we shall all define ourselves and our Agency.
“All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be
enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.”
John F. Kennedy
In so doing, we will be stronger and better than ever as a result. We will fly safer and wiser too. That
is the ultimate way to commemorate the sacrifice made by our lost comrades – as well as the risks yet
to be taken by others.
And as we emerge from this trying time, we’ll come back smarter, wiser, stronger and safer. We owe it
to the Columbia crew, their families, the astronauts, and the nation to sail spaceward once again
aboard Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour in the years to come.
To do any less dishonors the sacrifices of the Apollo 1 crew, the Challenger crew and the Columbia
crew, and for that matter, all space faring humans. For we on Earth have a solemn compact with all
who would leap above the sky for the benefit of all humankind.
“This cause of exploration and discovery is not an option we choose; it is a desire written in the
George W. Bush
I know that together, as one team WE can do it. Hang in there and take care of each other.
With the utmost personal and professional respect,
“Keep your heads down and keep coloring.”
anonymous kindergarten teacher