Report from Viewing the Re-entry of STS-107

by Ian Kluft
San Jose, California

Before anything else about STS-107, it is most appropriate to start with thoughts and prayers for the family of the seven crew members of STS-107. At the time of this writing, all the world is grieving for the loss of the crew. As time goes on, we must pick ourselves up, find out how to prevent this accident from recurring, and get America's space program and three remaining space shuttle orbiters flying again. And I think encouragement of commercial space launchers is needed for a longer-term follow-on to the shuttle - but we need the current shuttles until then.

Only a few of the space shuttle missions fly at the correct angle from Earth's equator (called the "inclination" of the orbit) to make it advantageous to fly over the Bay Area on re-entry. Columbia's STS-107 flight was one of those missions whose inclination of 39 degrees roughly equals our latitude. So we were anticipating that its re-entry would be visible over the San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Sacramento areas in California.

I had intended to watch the space shuttle re-entry in the pre-dawn sky over my home in San Jose, California. Unintentionally I ended up becoming an eyewitness to the beginning of a disaster.

On this page...

See also:

Anticipation of the Re-entry Viewing

I had seen two shuttle re-entries before. (STS-77 Endeavour in May 1996 and STS-78 Columbia in June 1996.) The ones I saw from my backyard in San Jose, I had described to others as "like a highway flare". There was a bit of pink tint to the light. It's a spectacular sight. It has only a meteor-like trail, glowing and fading but no smoke or cloud-like formation.

The word came that STS-107's re-entry might be visible. I first heard about it from Brian Webb's Southern California Launch Alert mail list. (I subscribe to his list because it focuses on launches from Vandenberg AFB, which are sometimes visible from San Jose, though I have yet to see one.) He forwarded news from Rick Baldridge of the Peninsula Astronomical Society about the potential that the shuttle re-entry path might cross over the Bay Area, and how people could watch it. Here are the messages about it from his list archive:

[ground track graphic] Just in case NASA's ground track graphics get taken down, I mirrored it here.

I forwarded the messages to my friends, with some additional advice based on my experience with the 1996 re-entry viewings. I was really looking forward to this.

In the days before, we started watching the weather forecasts so we'd know what it took to watch the shuttle re-entry. At first the forecast said it would be raining, in which case we'd have seen nothing. But the storm was weakening just before arrival. At the time I went to take a nap Friday evening the forecast was for thin high clouds but the weather trough was still enough to clear away the fog for us. Fog would still be a problem further south. I expected to watch it from my backyard as I had done with the previous two re-entries I had seen. Though the shuttle re-entry would be visible at 5:52AM Pacific Time, I set my alarm for 3AM to leave time for contingencies.

Finding a Place Above the Fog

When I woke up, it was foggy all across Silicon Valley. The weather trough had completely fizzled and there was widespread fog in all the valleys across California. There would be no viewing from home. So that contingency time was needed after all.

Here's the mail I sent to WVARA's Satellite Special Interest Group mail list when I looked outside and saw the fog.

[map of KO6YQ and AA6W viewing locations] With fog down on the valley floor, there would be no freeway drives any long distance to find a better viewing location. It had to be near home and time was short. I tried going up Sierra Rd first, which is the most direct route from the Berryessa neighborhood of San Jose to the top of the first ridge of the foothills east of San Jose. I climbed through fog so dense I sometimes had to slow to 5-10 mph to safely find the curvy road's markings. And when I got on top I was still in the fog. This was a thick fog bank.

There was only one option left. I decided to try Mount Hamilton, the 4,000 ft mountain which is home to the Lick Observatory (famous for its discoveries of planets in other solar systems.)

I talked on my mobile Ham Radio with Don Anastasia AA6W, who had been following my e-mails and wanted to watch the shuttle. He had just gotten up and found fog at his place in Los Gatos (along the western side of Silicon Valley) much as I had found at my place over an hour earlier. I told him he had 45 minutes to find a place above the fog. He jumped in his vehicle and headed for Skyline Blvd at the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

As I drove up Mount Hamilton, the fog kept going. I rapidly began to imagine clouds all the way to the top. But fortunately those fears weren't realized. I broke out of the fog a little past Grant Ranch Park on Mt Hamilton Rd (Highway 130.)

Don told me on the radio that he broke out of the fog just before reaching the top. He found several other observers there at Skyline (at the junction of Highways 9 and 35.) I stopped at an overlook where two other vehicles were already parked, who said they didn't mind if I joined them. The people I met at my overlook are members of the Peninsula Astronomical Society (PAS).

7 minutes before the shuttle was to arrive, I saw fog beginning to jump the ridge below us. It was difficult to make out the shape in the dark but we all soon agreed it was spilling over the ridge and coming our way. All we needed was 15 minutes and the shuttle would be by. But no, the fog suddenly formed all around us 3 minutes before the shuttle arrival. We threw all our things in our vehicles and scrambled to go further up the mountain above the fog.

Viewing the Shuttle Re-Entry

Don told me on the radio that they had a visual on Columbia coming over the Pacific Ocean toward California. I was still driving in the surprisingly thick fog that had just formed. Don described as he watched the shuttle pass from northwest to north. Then he lost it behind trees at his site.

I broke out of the fog and there was Columbia straight ahead (north-northeast) through my windshield, with the steep up-slope of the road providing a good angle. The road turned right at that moment and then Columbia was up out my driver's side window. We stopped right there in the road and watched.

The orbiter was bright red as usual. But more prominent than the orbiter was the trail behind it, which was different than I remembered before. Previous viewings had no real trail, more of just a thin glowing meteor streak that faded quickly. (And it's the same kind of ion trail as a meteor streak.) But this time it looked a little like a cloud/contrail forming right from the orbiter, several times wider than a meteor streak. The cloud billowed a little like a contrail formed around the orbiter (not behind it.) The bright tip appeared almost inside the trail, which is why it reminded me of a smoke trail. And it appeared to me like the trail obscured a little of the brightness of the light from the orbiter.

(added 2/4) It was difficult to interpret what I was seeing as I broke out of the fog. There was a string of "bright spots" on the trail behind the orbiter. Simply presented with the view and not having seen if the lights separated from the orbiter, at first it seemed a little like a reflection of the orbiter's light on the trail. That made it look like an unreal sight, as if out of a movie special effect with lighting coming from wrong angles, since it was impossible for the orbiter's red light to reflect off a smoke trail behind it. This may correspond to what others described as a "sparkle effect". That wording didn't pop the same picture into my mind. But realizing there was nowhere else for the light from these trailing red glowing spots to come from, I have to conclude that the source of the light may have been parts coming off Columbia. And I didn't realize it for some time. I might have had a better chance to recognize what I was seeing sooner if I had seen more of the pass.

After we lost it behind Mt Hamilton, we continued up to the next turnout and talked about it. None of us had seen a re-entry like that before. But none of us suspected anything was wrong. After all, even though we had all seen re-entries before, none of us had seen Columbia re-enter before. (Or so we thought. I looked it up later and one of my previous re-entry viewings was Columbia.) One of the people suggested Columbia as the oldest orbiter must have a different look to its re-entry. We all thought that sounded reasonable.

We began waiting for the sonic boom, hoping to keep things quiet since it would be muffled. During that time, three vehicles drove by. One of the others thought he heard it, which with all the other car noise I had mistaken for someone clearing their throat. Except everyone said it wasn't them, so I guess I heard the sonic boom too. That's kind of odd but it goes to show how muffled it is at that distance.

Another vehicle with members of PAS came from higher up the mountain and parked. When we talked with them, they said they had gotten video and still pictures. We certainly would have if we hadn't needed to scramble to get out of the fog. Morning twilight rapidly began in the minutes that we were talking after the shuttle pass. We talked a little about how I could contact the PAS members online. We had no idea what was happening as we talked...

The Bad News Unfolds

Soon after we started the drive down the mountain, Don called me on the radio to ask if I had been listening to the broadcast radio news. I hadn't, but I didn't like the sound of the question. Once he asked it that way, it almost had to be something wrong with the shuttle. He told me Columbia was overdue and missing. It had not landed at Kennedy Space Center. I knew that as a glider, if it didn't make it on time, it didn't make it at all.

I had gotten way behind the PAS guys and tried to catch up with them to somehow signal this to them. But when they stopped to wait for me, I knew they had gotten the word and wanted to tell me too. At the time, we had so little info, I remember saying that I hoped the crew had gotten out. One of them said it was impossible at that altitude - I didn't know any altitude info at the time. As they walked back to their vehicles, the thought first occurred to me about the different trail we saw on the re-entry. I posted the same advice for any other eyewitnesses on the Net several times through the rest of the day... I asked them to save their photos and video in case it was useful for the crash investigation. It seemed possible and we shouldn't discount the possibility that the odd trail behind the orbiter might be related to the accident.

I also gave Don the same advice to write down his experience. It seemed obvious to me that there may not be many eyewitness accounts from California, due to the widespread fog covering all the urban areas that would have had a view of the orbiter, and the pre-dawn hour here. (Most people who considered getting up to see the shuttle saw the fog and went back to bed.) So we need to get the word out to any eyewitnesses in California to share their observations.

Don and I also noticed in our discussion that we had different views of the pass. When I mentioned the obvious trail, Don said there wasn't one when it approached from the west. He lost his view behind the trees near when I broke out of the fog. And the trail was obvious then. I'd really be curious to hear confirmation from someone who got to see it horizon-to-horizon over California.

Here's the mail I sent to WVARA's Satellite Special Interest Group mail list after got home.

I also forwarded that to the sbay.hams newsgroup where further discussion took place.

In the NASA briefings, they said that telemetry from Columbia indicated the loss of signal from sensors in the left wing started happening at 7:53AM Central Time. That roughly coincides within a minute or so before I broke out of the fog and saw the smoky trail. So the first malfunctions occurred either over California or just off the coast over the Pacific Ocean.

Getting the News Out

During the course of the day I saw the news focus on Texas, of course. Eventually they said to look for debris along Columbia's ground track in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana. There seemed to be no indication that trouble began in California. It was important to get this word out there that it was already in trouble over California. Some people may also need to be aware to look for parts near here. And the scope of the investigation needs to start at least this far west. Friends and I tried increasingly to get this word out on Saturday, and found that NASA and most media outlets are experiencing information overload.

(added 2/4) On Sunday, we made progress on getting the word out. I gave a phone interview to SF Chronicle reporter Sabin Russell, who quoted me in his front-page article. Interestingly, he told me during the interview that he saw Columbia from San Francisco and observed a "sparkle effect" behind it, similar to the description of the astronomer in Bishop whom he also quoted. But he never mentioned in his article that he was an eyewitness himself.

Monday morning I got a phone call from CNN and gave another interview. I was also told by friends that KLIV radio in San Jose finally began playing a phone interview I gave them on Saturday. My friend Steve Traugott, who also took up the effort to make sure people knew Columbia was in trouble over California, got a call from KRON TV in San Francisco asking for us to be on their morning news show Tuesday. We accepted but not before they had booked someone else. (No problem - San Francisco is too far away to go that early in the morning.) If we had been on there, I would have hoped to get the message across for the few observers from California who got above the fog to bring their observations forward to NASA or the media.

The real progress in convincing the media that Columbia was in trouble over California was the video from the Peninsula Astronomical Society members also on Mt Hamilton. Their video shows parts coming off Columbia.

As far as I'm concerned, this means "mission accomplished". Now I know that the crash investigation won't neglect to look as far west as California.

I'm not usually the kind to go seeking attention from reporters. I'm still willing to talk about this. Though I'm no longer initiating contacts to the news media.

[image of California counties in debris search area] Some related news stories are started with a trickle and then got all over the media.

"CA Astronomer: Saw Shuttle Problems", KRON 4, San Francisco (Feb 2)
Astronomer from Bishop (Owens Valley, eastern California) reported seeing parts fall off over California/Nevada
"Locals Say They Saw Columbia In Trouble", KTXL 40, Sacramento (Feb 2)
Residents of the Sierra Foothills report seeing parts fall off over California
"Californians watch the skies", Quad-City Times, San Diego (Feb 2)
San Diego residents recognized "smoky streak" as unusual for shuttle re-entry, the reporter seems confused that anyone could see it from Southern California though it was predicted to be low to the horizon there
Daily News photographer captures rare shuttle photo, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Pasadena (Feb 2)
Newspaper photographer saw parts falling off orbiter from vantage point in Bishop
"Breakup may have begun above California", SF Chronicle, San Francisco (Feb 3)
This reporter saw Columbia himself, as well as interviewed others who saw it (including me)
"Breaking News: NASA Asks Public for Shuttle Photo Uploads", SJ Mercury News, San Jose (Feb 3)
One of our local tech columnists here in Silicon Valley linked to my page on his daily weblog.
"Chabot astronomers caught glimpse of Columbia", Tri-Valley Herald, Livermore/Pleasanton (Feb 3)
Astronomers in the East Bay also noticed differences in Columbia's re-entry this time. They were only able to see straight up through a hole in the clouds, probably just before I broke out of the fog. It was bright white to them.
"NASA asks California Highway Patrol to watch for shuttle debris", SJ Mercury News, San Jose (Feb 4)
Everyone on the West Coast trying top get NASA's attention have succeeded. NASA has asked the CHP to watch for shuttle debris and coordinate with other local agencies.
"Shuttle Debris Sought in Calif., Ariz.", ABC News (Feb 4)
News flash: NASA is sending teams to California. Yes, we have gotten their attention that problems started here.
"NASA Investigates Possible Shuttle Debris Found In Southland", KNSD NBC 7/39 TV, San Diego (Feb 4)
A burned foil-like scrap may be part of the orbiter thermal control system (TCS) by my guess.
"NASA combs Bay Area, coast for possible shuttle debris", SJ Mercury News, San Jose (Feb 6)
NASA crews are checking reports of shuttle debris in the Bay Area. So far it looks like everyone is just turning in anything they don't recognize. The ground track of the shuttle went over the coast between Point Reyes and Point Arena, to Sacramento Int'l Airport to Folsom to Shingle Springs, and then to between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite enroute east-southeast to Nevada. So I'm skeptical of any debris reports near San Jose - we were 100 miles south of it.
"Fairfield Shuttle Video Draws NASA Interest", KCRA TV, Sacramento (Feb 6)
Video from Fairfield shows pieces coming off Columbia over Fairfield. Note the camera's timestamp says 5:51AM but it must be 2 minutes behind since Columbia was overhead there at 5:53AM.
"Air Force imagery confirms Columbia wing damaged", SpaceFlightNow (Feb 7)
Air Force tracking telescope at Kirtland AFB in Albuquerque, NM got images of Columbia with significant damage to the inboard (near the fuselage) leading edge of the left wing, as the orbiter passed over the base 1 minute before it broke up over Dallas.
"Possibly Columbia shuttle debris near Lake Tahoe", Contra Costa Times, Concord (Feb 7)
Possible debris from Columbia has been reported near Lake Tahoe. This is near Columbia's ground track so it's a more credible report than others so far in the West.
"NASA Investigates California Reports of Spacecraft Debris", KXTV TV, Sacramento (Feb 7)
More reports of shuttle debris but no confirmed cases yet. Also refers to Fairfield video of parts coming off Columbia.
"Five California counties named in shuttle debris search", SJ Mercury News, San Jose (Feb 11)
NASA asks US Forest Service rangers in 5 rural/mountainous counties in eastern California to watch for shuttle debris.
"A timeline of the Columbia's final minutes", Associated Press via SF Chronicle, San Francisco (Feb 16)
The AP reporter called me for an interview for part of this article.
"NASA asks farmers for help finding Columbia material", NASA News Release (Feb 17)
NASA's news release asks farmers in the West to be alert for any shuttle debris that may have fallen on their lands.
"Search for shuttle debris west of Texas isn't panning out", Houston Chronicle (Feb 25)
After many reports of possible debris, the westernmost debris confirmed to be from Columbia has still only been found in West Texas.
"Hams Aid Columbia Debris Search in Western States", ARRL News Release (Feb 26)
Ham Radio operators assist in the shuttle debris search in rugged areas of the western states.
"NorCal Counties Listed As Shuttle Debris Area", KTVU TV, Oakland (Mar 4)
24 counties in Northern California were officially added to the shuttle debris search area. I updated my map - you can see some of these counties are long shots.
"Shuttle lost a 'steady stream' of debris", CNN from AP, (Mar 4)
NASA is increasing efforts to search for debris in the West. It contains a nice acknowledgement to those who provided amateur video, "...without the videos, 'We wouldn't know any of this. These people are definitely our heroes.'"
Google News search for articles referring to shuttle debris in California
This is the news search that I use to check for new articles on this topic.

Other Eyewitness Accounts in the West

I've started to collect links to other online eyewitness reports from the West. (broken out to a new section heading on 2/12)

Where to Go in the Future

One thing is for sure: we can't stop going to space. As I said in the beginning, we must pick ourselves up, find out how to prevent this accident from recurring, and get America's space program and three remaining space shuttle orbiters flying again.

After watching the NASA JSC briefing on Saturday, I believe some procedure for in-flight repair of tiles, even if only temporary patches for one re-entry, looks like it'll be necessary for future flights.

In order to find a more economical follow-on to the shuttle program, I'd be in favor of making incentives (not necessarily NASA grants, due to burdensome strings attached to them) and lightening up regulatory inhibitions preventing the private sector from developing future launch vehicles. But we can't stop flying the shuttles while there's no replacement.

Other references on the web


Back up to Ian's space shuttle pages