The Columbia

January 23, 2017

In 2003 the space shuttle Columbia was returning from two weeks in orbit. It was a routine mission. So routine that most of America barely paid attention. Until something went terribly wrong. Many of us watched shuttle break apart over Texas on television. All seven of the crew members were lost. Jon Clark’s wife, Laurel, was one of them, and her death that day inspired his life’s work: helping get more people to space.

Undone is hosted and produced by Pat Walters, with Julia DeWitt and Emanuele Berry.

Our senior producer is Larissa Anderson. We are edited by Alan Burdick and Caitlin Kenney. Production assistance by Isabella Kulkarni. Undone is mixed and scored by Bobby Lord. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.

Special thanks to Janna Levin.

Undone was conceived in collaboration with our friends at Retro Report, the documentary film series that connects iconic news events of the past to today. You can find them here.

If you want to get in touch, you can find us on Twitter @undoneshow or e-mail us at undone at gimletmedia dot com.

Show transcript

PAT WALTERS: Hey everybody, before we start, I have an announcement; Undone will not be coming back for a second season. Making this first season of the show has been awesome, and we’ve loved seeing how the stories resonated with you. So this was not an easy decision to make, and we only came to it after a lot of thought and discussion. The gist of it is that as we got into the first season, it became clear that we didn’t have everything the show needed to keep growing and experimenting and finding its way. Not right now at least. Gimlet is a start-up, and we’re growing fast. Some things we try are going to continue on for a long time. And some things won’t.

 

Before we start this last episode, let me just say, thank you all for listening. I also want to thank Retro Report, the documentary film series that revisits big moments from the news, who we worked with in coming up with the idea for the show. Thanks also to Gimlet and most of all to our amazing team. We’re so proud of what Undone has accomplished, and we’re excited to bring you new stories and other projects down the line.

 

Ok, on to our story this week. Just a quick note, this episode has some swear words and some graphic content, so if you’re around people who should not hear that kind of stuff, plug in your headphones, or wait until they’ve gone to bed.

 

From Gimlet Media, this is Undone. I’m Pat Walters.

 

In January of 2003 a space shuttle mission called STS-107 launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida with seven astronauts on board.

 

LAUREL: I’m having a fantastic time. The only thing missing is you and dad.

 

This is Laurel Clark, one of the astronauts, on a video call back to her family.

 

IAIN: Dad, wanna talk to her?

JONATHAN: Why don’t you ask her what she felt like in space?

 

That’s Laurel’s husband Jon. And you can also hear their son Iain on these calls. He was eight years old then.

 

Laurel and her crew were up there on a science mission, doing all kinds of different experiments. Some of them were serious, like studying cancer cells. But Jon says, a lot of them were also just neat space stuff, like making videos for kids back on Earth of what fire looks like in space.

 

Here’s Jon,

 

JONATHAN: A flame on Earth, ya know, has a yellow part and a red part and a blue part, and it goes up. In space, it doesn’t do that. It forms a ball and it’s totally blue. It’s the coolest thing ever.

 

This was Laurel’s first mission. She’d been training for it for more than six years.

 

And day before heading home Laurel sent an e-mail back to her family and friends.

 

She wrote, “I have seen some incredible sights … lightning spreading over the Pacific, the Aurora Australis lighting up the entire visible horizon, the crescent moon setting over the limb of the Earth. It is glorious. Even the stars have a special brightness.” The next morning, the shuttle headed back toward Earth. Here’s Jon again,

 

JONATHAN: The shuttle is going to come, is planning to land, a little bit after nine a.m. Eastern Time, saturday morning. So, ya know, you get up, have breakfast, everybody goes to the shuttle landing strip, and that’s where they’re gonna land.

 

The landing strip is basically a really long runway, and standing beside it are Jon and Iain and the families of the other astronauts.

 

JONATHAN: They have a bunch of bleachers like a high-school football stadium.

 

It’s a beautiful, clear day. Perfect for a landing.

 

JONATHAN: So um I’m in a weird position ‘cause I’ve done this before.

 

The thing is, Jon works for NASA, as a flight doctor. Which means he’s been to other shuttle landings, on call in case anything goes wrong.

 

JONATHAN: So for me this was no big deal. I mean, I’ve done this 10 times.

 

So Jon knew the drill. As he’s waiting, he’s listening to this loudspeaker NASA has set up to play the radio communication between the shuttle and mission control.

 

ARCH: Our crosswind right now is on the left, on the three-three end.

 

And for a while, everything is totally normal. Until all of a sudden,

 

ARCH: Columbia, Houston, UHF comm check.

The shuttle side of the communication goes out.

 

ARCH: Columbia, Houston, comm check.

 

JONATHAN: And then what I saw was there’s astronauts they call em family escorts, all their phones go off at the same time, and you just see in their faces, this kind of ashen white, oh shit.

 

The space shuttle Columbia had broken apart on reentry and all seven astronauts on board had died. Rick Husband. William McCool. Michael Anderson. Kalpana Chawla. David Brown. Ilan Ramon. And Jon’s wife, Laurel Clark.

 

The accident was devastating for Jon, and the fact that he worked for NASA made it all the more challenging for him to navigate. In the aftermath of the disaster, Jon felt himself caught between these two competing impulses. As a husband, who just lost his wife, all Jon wanted to do was run away from anything related to NASA and spaceflight. But as a NASA guy he also felt a pull to help find out what happened, and to see if he could do anything to make spaceflight safer for other astronauts.

 

This is the story of what he did.

 

First, a little backstory on Jon and Laurel.

 

Before they worked at NASA, they were in the Navy together. That’s actually where they met. They were both doctors and both interested in extreme environments. And in 1989, they ended up in dive school together.

 

JONATHAN: And this was military diving which is a whole different ball game and very arduous.

 

They did these things called harassment dives where the instructors would send the students under water, blindfold them, and then cut off their air to see if they could troubleshoot the situation. Super intense stuff. Laurel was the only woman that made it all the way through the training.

 

JONATHAN: The guys were always like oh we’re tough and she would alway swim faster than us She was just you know tenacious. That’s how come she was so revered.

 

Jon especially revered her. And at a certain point, he started flirting with Laurel at morning roll call.

 

JONATHAN: You have to lay your gear out in a very precise order, I mean exactly the right way.

 

Like line up your life vest, your fins, your facemask.

 

JONATHAN: And so, Laurel was next to me and I turned her knife backwards. And the instructors would come along and they would see it and they would just go crazy and kick all the gear in the water and scream and yell at ‘em and everything and they never did figure out what was the deal there. And I did that enough times that she and her dive buddy got in trouble and she never figured it out. [LAUGHING]

 

Eventually they fell in love and got married.

 

In 1991 Laurel decided she wanted to become an astronaut. And that came about in kind of an eerie way. Jon had gotten invited to be a part of a NASA training exercise in Florida. And Laurel decided to tag along.

 

JONATHAN: And they have a huge shuttle mock-up that they put out in the swamp.

 

The exercise was a simulated shuttle crash … and Jon was a part of the crew of doctors training to respond to it. Laurel was watching, when at one point, one of the NASA people running the training was like,

 

JONATHAN: Hey, we don’t have enough casualties.

 

There were a bunch of people there pretending to be injured astronauts in this simulated shuttle crash. But they needed one more person. So Laurel spoke up,

 

JONATHAN: She goes, hey, I’ll volunteer.

 

JONATHAN: So she gets in this suit in the shuttle, and they have this simulated crash, and we go and rescue her, and pull her out and put her on the helicopter and take her to one of the hospitals that had a hyperbaric chamber, cause that was her casualty, was decompression sickness.

 

Which is one of the things that would kill her in the shuttle accident eleven years later.

 

JONATHAN: So afterwards, this is no shit, she goes, I want to do this. That’s where she got the goal to go do astronaut stuff.

 

And even though this might sound weird to you or me, it made a certain kinda sense to Jon. By this point both of them had made careers out of serving the country in really risky jobs. Laurel had worked on a submarine. Jon had been a flight surgeon in Desert Storm. Laurel applied to NASA in 1994, but she was pregnant with Iain at the time, and she didn’t get in. So she applied again, made it, and in 1996, she started training for space.

 

PAT: I don’t know if there’s a little anecdote that you can remember that would give people a

sense of what she was like?

TRACY: Oh well there’s a lot of things. An anecdote or two, um…

 

This is Tracy Caldwell Dyson, a NASA astronaut who joined the program shortly after Laurel.

 

TRACY: I don’t think I’ve ever known Laurel without a smile on her face, and she always had these fantastic earrings. If it was Christmas she’d have snowmen hanging from her ears. You know where it was just enough for me to get my hair combed for the day, Laurel went the extra step to make sure that she had earrings on everyday [LAUGHS]. That was kind of noteworthy.

 

As Laurel was settling into her training, Jon transferred to NASA to be a doctor there and started studying the medical risks of spaceflight. Jon had worked on accident prevention in the Navy, and when he started doing it for NASA, what he found kinda shocked him.

 

JONATHAN: The analysis that I did was that basically our loss rate, per mission cycle, was equivalent to WWII daylight bombing crew, you know B17s and B24s flying to Europe.

 

Back in World War II Jon says, one out of every hundred of these bombing missions ended in the death of the crew. And when it came to the shuttle program, the rate was the same. NASA had only lost one shuttle, the Challenger in 1986, but by the late 1990s they’d also only flown about a hundred missions. Meaning, according to Jon, going up in the shuttle was as dangerous as going to war.

 

And so when Laurel got assigned her shuttle mission, Jon told her this. But, he says, it didn’t really phase her.

 

JONATHAN: Well, I mean it kind of was on deaf ears you know cause it was like I would go anyway and guess what, i would have done the same thing.

 

And to Laurel’s astronaut friend Tracy, this reaction made sense.

 

TRACY: There was this quote that Laurel said before, and that was, a ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what a ship is for. She knew the risks really well of what she was doing and what we do in this business. But she knew that what we gain from it is so much more important.

 

JON: Can you hear mommy?

IAIN: No.

JON: It’s taking a few seconds for the sound to come on.

 

And when you listen to the calls between Laurel and her family when she’s up in space this call, what stands out the most is how mundane they are. It’s just like, Laurel is doing her job, which happens to be in space. These calls sound like the kind any family would have when mom is away on a work trip.

 

JON: That food we got on the cruise ship probably wasn’t the best deal.

 

They talk about how Jon and Iain got food poisoning, and they make plans for when Laurel gets back.

 

IAIN: I wanna be with you.

LAUREL: It’s only about another week.

IAIN: And we can go to Disneyland?

LAUREL: Nope. We’re gonna have to do that after the mission, but I promise I will take you in the next year sometime.

 

JONATHAN: You know I’ll be back in a week and da da and quite honestly I was the same way I wasn’t prepared for her not to come back.

 

JONATHAN: Over and out, Houston.

LAUREL: Over and out.

IAIN: Bye.

 

ARCH: My fellow Americans, this day has brought terrible news and great sadness to our country. At nine o’clock this morning, Mission Control in Houston lost contact with our space shuttle Columbia.

 

When communication with the shuttle broke off, Jon and Iian and the other families of the astronauts who were out at the runway got rushed over to this NASA facility. And the head of the astronaut office walked in the room.

 

JC: And he calls everybody together, and he goes, the shuttle broke up at a high altitude and we don’t think it’s survivable. And then all of a sudden there’s this wailing, crying, the kids were screaming, all the family members were crying and hugging each other. It was horrible. I can still remember the blood-curdling screams from the kids. It was horrible it was like the most horrific sound you could ever imagine.

 

Jon remembers that night, NASA put him and Iain on a plane back home to Texas.

 

JONATHAN: And we’re flying back to Houston. I remember Iain wants to play cards, like Go Fish, or something can’t remember, some kid card game. And he’s kicking my butt because I’m just like, somebody just took my brain and cut it in half.

 

All Jon could think about was running away.

 

JONATHAN: I’m gonna get our dog Addie. Get as much cash as we can from the ATM. And we are gonna go and nobody will ever see us again.

 

But he didn’t have a chance. When he landed, some other astronauts grabbed him and took him over to one of their houses and got him really drunk. And by the time he sobered up, running away didn’t really feel like an option anymore. Jon says that first week he was home, his house was full of people.

 

JONATHAN: All of Laurel’s friends. All my friends. Family. It was an absolute zoo.  People are drinking and crying and talking and showing pictures. And I’m just like the zombie they’re just leading around on a leash. You just go here, you just go do this. And after a while, I was like, I can’t take this. So I went to work.

 

But remember, Jon worked at NASA. And in wake of the accident all anybody at NASA was talking about and working on was the Columbia. And suddenly the thing Jon had wanted to run away from, was all around him.

 

[Break]

 

When the Columbia space shuttle broke apart on reentry in 2003, debris fell across an area of Texas and Louisiana hundreds of miles across. In the weeks after the accident, thousands of volunteers assembled to gather up as much of it up as they could so NASA could piece it back together and study what happened. A few weeks after the accident. Jon and some of the other family members went down to see them.

 

JONATHAN: And so I went out with them and just basically said, hey, thanks, you guys are really doing something important.

PAT: You’re getting choked up, what felt so important?

JONATHAN: Well, I mean, this is hard to do. People think, ya know, all this stuff got burned up, no, there were body parts. Not fragmented body parts. Big pieces. Heads. Legs. Torsos.

PAT: And you spent a bunch of time out there?

JONATHAN: Yeah, a lot of time. Just thanking ‘em for what they were doing.

 

Eventually NASA pieced together a lot of this debris and determined what went wrong: when the shuttle launched, a piece of foam had snapped off the fuel tank, and punched a hole in the left wing. And as the shuttle reentered the atmosphere, hot gasses poured into the hole and tore the wing apart. At this point, Jon wasn’t involved in the investigation. But then one day, he gets a call from a friend on the investigation team.

 

JONATHAN: He calls me up and he goes, NASA doesn’t want anything in there about what happened to the crew. You know the primary focus is what happened to the vehicle and they’re very different. So what did they do, how did they respond, and how did they perish. So, I wrote the head of the Columbia board and said, the families want that done.

 

The initial report NASA released about the accident had a one-page summary of what happened to the crew. But Jon felt strongly that that wasn’t enough, that a detailed investigation into how the crew died could help make things safer for other astronauts in the future.

 

And what Jon eventually realized is that he was kinda the perfect guy to work on this. He was a flight doctor. And a NASA guy. And he’d investigated accidents before when he was in the Navy. So in 2004, Jon and a team of people started studying how the Columbia crew died.

 

JONATHAN: I mean everybody has a different way. Some people just grieve and grieve and grieve and for me it’s like you know if I can’t run of the grid, now I’m gonna have to help them to figure out what happened.

 

They examined the flight data recorder, studied debris from the cockpit, and reviewed the astronauts’ autopsy reports, which included graphic photos of their bodies after the crash.

 

PAT: Did anybody stop you and say, like, Jon, maybe this isn’t a good idea?

JONATHAN: Oh yeah, sure, absolutely and for good reason. Trust me, this was not an easy thing. But you say, look, we have to do this that others may live. And so you just have to you have to deal with it.

 

Jon said that line, that others may live, a few times during our interview. It’s the motto of the Air Force Pararescuemen. And talking to Jon about this decision, you do get the sense he felt a duty to help –  to study what happened to Laurel in order to make spaceflight safer for other astronauts. NASA still had astronauts up in space at the International Space Station at the time. And they needed to send more shuttle missions up to give those astronauts supplies. And beyond that immediate need, Jon just believed deeply in space exploration. He had even applied to be an astronaut himself, but didn’t get in.

 

JONATHAN: For me it’s doing it but with a sense of purpose. And a goal. I would feel more distraught by knowing that their sacrifice did not make a difference, didn’t matter, didn’t make it better, we didn’t learn from it. So, that’s what you know kept me going.

 

The investigation ended up taking years. And in 2008, Jon’s team published their results. They describe in meticulous detail the crew’s final moments.

 

After NASA lost radio communication with shuttle, the crew was alive and conscious for nearly a minute. They tried a bunch of different things to regain control of the shuttle, not knowing it was too late. And after that a series of horrible things happened; their bodies experienced severe burns, got thrown around in the cockpit, and their blood boiled from the pressure of space.

 

JONATHAN: But they weren’t suffering because they were unconscious.

 

Jon says finding out this last detail, gave some solace to the family members. Including him.

PAT: Did that process provide any kind of closure?

JONATHAN: Oh yeah, it wasn’t like, mission accomplished, closure, it was like, here’s what we learned from it, and here’s where we go forward.

 

Because of these investigations that Jon participated in, NASA made a lot of changes to the space program to make it safer. They improved crew training, modified the spacesuits, and strengthened the seat restraints. The investigations also changed the culture at NASA they became a reminder of how dangerous spaceflight is. And in the years after the Columbia accident, NASA wound down the shuttle program. But as that was happening, private companies were getting into space exploration in a big way.

 

And Jon was about to find himself at the center of that.

 

In 2012 Jon got a call from one of these private-sector space explorers. His name was Alan Eustace. He’s an engineer who used to be an exec at Google, but he’s also a long-time pilot and skydiver and he had this idea to skydive from the stratosphere.

 

Not quite space. But almost. Some of you might remember that Red Bull guy, Felix Baumgartner, who did something similar around this same time. Alan’s project was different from that one because it wasn’t just about skydiving from near space.

 

It was about building a new kind of spacesuit that could keep you alive for hours up there.

 

Here’s Alan,

 

ALAN: You know I was intrigued on whether you could create a self-contained system to survive in the stratosphere much like scuba diving has allowed you to survive underneath the water, and so it was the problem that grabbed me more than anything else.

 

And that problem was also one of the big ones that Laurel and the Columbia crew faced back in 2003 when the space shuttle broke apart on reentry. Because when the accident happened, the Columbia was also in the stratosphere and the suits the astronauts were wearing would not have protected them even if they’d been able to get out of the space shuttle. When Alan took on this challenge, only one person had survived a fall from that high up. A guy named Joe Kittinger had done it in the 60s. The Red Bull guy would become the second in 2012. But both of those guys were experienced skydivers, and they’d still both nearly died doing it. Alan wanted to make a suit that was so simple, that anybody could use it. And so simple, in fact, that it would get you back alive, even if something went wrong and you couldn’t operate the suit yourself.

 

ALAN: We had to get an unconscious person to the earth safely.

 

And in order to pull it off, he needed a doctor to join the team.

 

AE: And for that we asked, who’s the most qualified person in the world, and that was universal, everybody said that the right person was Jon Clark.

 

Jon’s research into what happened to the Columbia astronauts had turned him into one of the world’s experts on what happens to the human body when it comes back from space. He’d become the go-to guy for private space explorers interested in getting up there and getting back safely. By the time Alan called him, Jon was actually working on that Red Bull project and he’d started talking to a few private space travel companies.

 

So Jon joined Alan’s team, and one of the first things he did was give Alan this presentation about risk, the same talk he had given Laurel before she decided to go to space but with the Columbia accident added to it.

 

ALAN: If you you go through it you’ll probably run the other direction.

 

It’s called, “Survival at the Fringe of Space.”

 

ALAN: The history of all high-altitude failures to date. All the people that had died and why they had died, or why they were injured. He had videos of some of it happening. Anyways yes, he had one of the most frightening presentations I’ve ever seen.

 

But Alan was determined to go. He and his team, now including Jon, spent years building this suit. They put in precautions in case there’s a leak, designed a special parachute to prevent spinning — which can be deadly — and made it you so you stay alive in the suit for hours. On October 24, 2014, Alan hitched himself to a giant balloon and began his two-hour-long float up to 135,000 feet, four times higher than commercial airplanes fly, and almost exactly the altitude of the Columbia accident.

 

ALAN: It’s almost like the world is receding. Pebbles become boulders become cars become buildings become cities become states. The sky starts out as blue and then it gets darker and darker and then it becomes completely black. The atmosphere is you think this gradual change from light to dark but it’s not it’s got all these beautiful delicate layers.

 

Listening to Alan describe this scene kinda makes you think of that e-mail Laurel sent back to her family from space. There’s this awe at seeing the world from this vantage point, seeing how small it is in the vastness of space.

 

Eventually he reaches 135,000 feet. And for a moment he’s suspended there, sitting on the edge of space, protected from this totally hostile environment by this suit Jon Clark helped him build. And then,

 

ALAN: 5,4,3,2,1 and I’m released. You know I start to fall and because there is no atmosphere at that point there’s no noise. And eventually at 51 seconds I’m going 822 miles an hour past the speed of sound and at that point the atmosphere’s thick enough and I’m falling fast enough that I start to hear the sound of the wind slowing me down.

 

Less than five minutes after Alan detached from the balloon in the stratosphere, he pulls his ripcord.

 

And ten minutes after that, he lands. And Jon Clark was there waiting for him.

 

JONATHAN: You now, we were ready but nothing bad happened in fact his jump was unbelievably stable.

PAT: Were you thinking about Laurel at all that day?

JONATHAN: Oh yeah, I mean you know. I kept remembering that saying that others may live. And I was saying a kind of prayer that basically acknowledged Laurel’s sacrifice that hey babe we did it right this time and the next time somebody goes to space and has a problem like you had they have a fighting chance at survival. It was awesome.

 

You can hear it in Jon’s voice when he talks about this stuff. He really does just think space exploration is awesome. That’s not true of everybody Laurel left behind. Her son, Iain has no interest in spaceflight. It took his mom from him, after all. And Jon gets that. After Laurel died, Jon says he stopped taking as many risks, worried about leaving Iain with no parents. He gave up flying small airplanes, for instance. But Iain’s grown up now, and even though Jon probably knows more about the dangers of spaceflight than just about anyone else on Earth, he says, if he got the chance, he’d go.

 

JONATHAN: Shoot yeah. I don’t care how risky it is. I don’t care if it’s a guarantee that I would die. I would still do it. I’d go to Mars. Tomorrow.

 

Undone is hosted and produced by me Pat Walters, with Julia DeWitt and Emanuele Berry.

 

Our senior producer is Larissa Anderson. We are edited by Alan Burdick and Caitlin Kenney. Production assistance by Isabella Kulkarni. Undone is mixed and scored by Bobby Lord. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.

 

Special thanks to Janna Levin.

 

Undone was conceived in collaboration with our friends at Retro Report, the documentary film series that connects iconic news events of the past to today. You can find them at retroreport.org.

 

If you want to get in touch, you can find us on Twitter @undoneshow or e-mail us at undone@gimletmedia.com.

 

Thank you all so much for listening.

 

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