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Issue Date: February 2008


Flying - in space after the Columbia tragedy

Astronaut Charles Hobaugh, who went to North Ridgeville High School, worked closely with the crew of the fallen Columbia flight of 2003. In his first trip to space since the tragedy, he faced a problem similar to what doomed the other shuttle.
as told to Andy Netzel
It was astronaut Charles Hobaugh’s job to work the space shuttle Endeavor’s robotic arm during a mission in which missing foam caused some worry in the wake of Columbia.

We were supposed to be the next flight after the Columbia mishap. Our crew was assigned more than four years before we actually flew.

During the mishap, I was the CAPCOM, the Capsule Communicator. Basically I was the one who talked directly to the crew.

It was ... it was hard. Yeah.

You mourn those who you lose, but we all feel that we want to press on for their loss. You do question things, but we understand what we have as risks, and it’s not always going to go our way. Manned space flight is an important endeavor. I don’t think we saw anybody change their mind or seriously consider bowing out.

During the investigation, we were grounded, but we kept preparing. Once operations resumed, NASA put quite a few flights behind it before we flew. We were, what, the sixth flight since Columbia?

You get into training about a year prior to flight. You start with the basics, and move on to the specifics.

Our space walkers spend a lot of time in our neutral buoyancy lab, which is like a big swimming pool. For each space walk they do, they rehearse it seven times in this facility.

I was the robotic arm operator on space shuttle Endeavor, so I spent a lot of time going through and developing the moves that we would do. We also train a lot for the shuttle systems on ascent and entry, and postexertion to turn into an orbiting space station.

Even though a year seems like a long time, it’s kind of short. I mean, we have to prepare for everything — you couldn’t imagine. Something as simple as sampling food and getting your menu down to figuring out where you’re going to sleep, there’s a whole bunch to all of that. It takes a long time.

There was a little apprehension for my family, but not what you might think.

During takeoff, we lost foam on Endeavor. The foam is there to insulate and protect the space shuttle’s external fuel tank. The loss of foam gained a lot of attention because a large hole in the foam brought down
Columbia.

Foam comes off on every flight. We have minor damage on every one. For them to tell us we had some foam come off was not a surprise, and I wasn’t too worried about it.

We did some inspection and used a sensor system. When we had the image sent to us, they blew it up and it looked really bad. But when you look at it proportionately, it didn’t look so bad.

There was a deep gouge, though, which could cause surrounding tiles to unzip.

The engineers said it wouldn’t be an issue, though, and from then I felt comfortable that it wouldn’t be a problem. They’re usually very conservative. We’re not going to do anything stupid or death defying that doesn’t make sense.

We didn’t know that it had become a big deal on television and in newspapers. I know people were worried. It’s awesome to see people actually care about us. It’s really nice to know the concern, but hopefully people don’t get spun up for the wrong reasons.

There are certain things you have control of and certain things you don’t. You can only worry about things you know.

You do your job. You do your part. You’re ready for contingencies, and you know what you’ll do. You don’t change what you do and what you think.

We’re astronauts. There’s always a risk. But we feel it’s a worthy endeavor.

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