Still haunted by Columbia's end


GOLDEN, Colo. - Linda Ham seldom worried about the future during a 21-year career that saw her become one of NASA's most powerful space shuttle managers.

Since a year ago today, however, when the Columbia accident claimed the lives of seven astronauts, the future is never far from her mind.

For the past two months, the former shuttle executive has been working in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains outside Denver - about 900 miles from her husband and sons in Houston - to help organize a government energy initiative. That temporary assignment will end by this summer. Beyond that, Ham has no concrete plans.

"Usually," she says wistfully, "I know where I'm going."

Before the Columbia accident, Ham's reputation as a smart, decisive manager put her on a course headed straight to the top of the shuttle world at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

After the disaster, however, investigators determined that the mission management team, or MMT, that oversaw Columbia's final flight had made bad decisions and failed to recognize possible warning signs of the impending catastrophe. Ham had led the team.

As the most visible of the mission's senior managers and the person in charge, her fall from grace was complete and immediate.

Almost overnight, the 43-year-old engineer went from being one of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's best and brightest to a lightning rod for media criticism and the personification of problems in the agency's management culture.

"If people say there are problems with the NASA culture, I will admit that I am part of it," Ham said. "I grew up there. I was there when I was 21 years old and spent 21 years there. So besides growing up in Wisconsin, the only other thing I ever knew was NASA."

A year after the accident, Ham remains haunted by it, her life changed forever. In the weeks leading up to the first anniversary, she spoke to the Orlando Sentinel in her first extended interview since the disaster.

"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about Columbia and the accident," Ham said softly. "I am accountable and fully responsible for any decisions made at the MMT.

"We did the best we could with what we knew," she added. "I'm at peace with my decisions. I think everyone in the program feels that way."

Quick rise

It didn't take Ham long to begin moving up in Houston. Her first job was in Mission Control's back room as a flight controller monitoring propulsions systems. She was quickly promoted to a position on the floor of the control center, then became the group's first female section head. In the all-male bastion of Mission Control, Ham was a true pioneer.

"She had so much talent and her intellect was so strong she could compete with the best in assessing the facts," said Ron Dittemore, NASA's former shuttle program manager and Ham's former boss. "She rose through the ranks fast at a young age because of her ability to assimilate information."

Along the way, Ham earned a reputation as a tough, authoritative leader, someone who focused on problems with laser-like precision and wasn't afraid to quickly and unilaterally make hard decisions - qualities essential for success in Mission Control.

In May 1991, she became NASA's first female flight director and was soon given responsibility for the critical launch and landing parts of the mission.

The year before, she had married Ken Ham, a Navy officer who flew aboard the so-called Vomit Comet airplane NASA uses to simulate weightlessness. The couple had two sons by 1994. Ham was a single mother for months at a time as her husband drew combat assignments overseas as a carrier pilot.

Four years later, Ken Ham was selected as an astronaut. She decided to apply also, going so far as to have laser surgery to correct her poor eyesight. NASA wouldn't accept candidates who had undergone the procedure, however, and she focused on her duties in Mission Control.

Ham loved her job as a flight director. When managers began coaxing her to leave Mission Control for a promotion into the shuttle program office, it took lots of convincing.

Finally, she agreed. After less than a year as Dittemore's technical assistant, she was named the program's integration manager in 2001, responsible for making sure each mission's requirements were met. As part of the job, she led the MMT meetings that oversaw every flight while in orbit.

Things fall apart

Within hours of Columbia's launch on Jan. 16, 2003, engineers examining images of the liftoff discovered that a briefcase-sized piece of foam insulation had broken free from the shuttle's external fuel tank and smashed into the leading edge of the ship's left wing.

There was immediate concern that the strike could have damaged the tiles and panels that protected Columbia from 3,000-degree temperatures when the shuttle re-entered Earth's atmosphere. Some engineers wanted to take photos of Columbia in orbit using top-secret military telescopes to pinpoint the damage.

Like other shuttle managers, Ham never thought the foam could have seriously harmed Columbia. After all, foam debris had fallen from the tank and struck the orbiter during every one of the shuttle's previous 112 launches. It was a known risk. She and other senior managers denied the photo request.

The MMT met five times throughout the 16-day flight - there was a long-ignored requirement that it meet every day - and quickly dismissed the foam issue after a flawed engineering analysis concluded that the debris strike posed no threat. Some engineers continued to worry, but their concerns never were heard because of reluctance to speak out or jump the chain of command.

"Those people were in the MMT," Ham said pointedly. "Even after the fact, when I found out there was a reluctance to speak out, I couldn't understand it. ... When people have a hunch but no data to support it, they ought to bring it up. Then you can say, 'We don't have the data, but let's go get it.' We didn't even get that far."

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board's final report included this harsh assessment of the MMT's performance:

"Management decisions made during Columbia's final flight reflect missed opportunities, blocked or ineffective communications channels, flawed analysis and ineffective leadership. ... Some space shuttle program managers failed to fulfill the implicit contract to do whatever is possible to ensure the safety of the crew. In fact, their management techniques unknowingly imposed barriers that kept at bay both engineering concerns and dissenting views."

During one of the MMT's few, brief discussions on the foam issue, Ham uttered words that she would later regret. Discussing possible damage from the foam strike, she said: "It's not really much of a factor in the flight, because there is not much we can do about it."

Her remarks came in the midst of a discussion on whether a new rationale would be needed to keep launching shuttle missions after the unusually large foam impact. Ham was concerned not about the current flight, but about the reasoning behind NASA's decision to continue launching after a similar foam strike the previous October.

Later, the sentence would be lifted out of context to suggest Ham was callously indifferent to the fate of Columbia. The accusation hurt deeply.

"When I made that comment, I was referring to the fact that I knew we did not have a repair kit for tile on orbit," Ham said during her recent interview. "My thought was that was not an option. Now, if we had known we had catastrophic damage, obviously we would have done anything we could think of to have repaired it or launched [a rescue mission]."

Critics branded Ham a villain. Friends and supporters called her a scapegoat. Lawmakers in Washington publicly questioned during congressional hearings why she still had a job.

The criticism took its toll on her. Ham still remembers getting an emotional hug from one of her sons one tearful night after a particularly rough day. Her sons had seldom seen her cry.

"I went 10 years without really crying about anything," Ham said. "I thought whatever the situation is, you have to be strong and you have to deal with it. You can't fall apart."

Moving on

While some of Columbia's mission managers remain in the shuttle program, Ham decided to leave Johnson for a while. Her new job is at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, where she is on loan from NASA, living apart from her husband and two sons in Houston.

"I came out here by choice," said Ham, who thought the temporary move was best for both her and NASA. "At some point, you have to say, 'I'm not helping.' And if I'm not helping, then I want to move on."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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