Columbia Accident Working Scenario Quotes Observation by Rick Baldridge

From: Ted Molczan (
Date: Tue May 06 2003 - 21:02:41 EDT

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    This afternoon, the CAIB released its working scenario of the Columbia
    accident, which includes mention of the first videotaped debris shedding
    event, captured by SeeSat-L contributor Rick Baldridge, as he reported here on
    Feb 02:
    "Yesterday was a bad day for me (and all of us.)  I video-taped the re-entry
    for Mt. Hamilton, CA and took two photos.  Naked-eye, we didn't notice
    anything too unusual, but I was spending most of my time looking through the
    video camera viewfinder.  We thought we had just seen another spectacular
    NORMAL re-entry.  Only an hour later when I got home did I learn of the
    tragedy that occurred minutes after we saw the Shuttle go by.
    When I looked at my video, there were very fain but definite pieces coming
    off, with the first piece seen on the video at 5:53:45am PST +/- 1 second. A
    had made a time-hack as I always do to obtain timings, and this hack was
    synchronized to WWV. As far as I know at this time, I was the furthest west
    observer on the re-entry track to get a video."
    The CAIB's press release does not mention Rick by name, but refers to the
    observation that he reported:
    "Soon after the hot gas entered the left wing multiple debris events were
    captured on video by observers on the ground. These video images begin at
    8:53:46 EST (20 seconds after California coastal crossing) and end with
    Columbia's final break-up."
    Slide #20 of the accompanying presentation provides the same information:
    At the CAIB's public hearing of March 17, the investigators expressed their
    high regard for the efforts of all who provided video and still imagery:
    <<<MR. HUBBARD: Two kinds of questions. First type has to do where all the
    material, raw material came from. Obviously we owe the public a great debt of
    gratitude for such cooperation. Can you tell us how many different submissions
    or contributions there have been and how many you sorted it into and a little
    bit about how you determined what was useful and what wasn't? 
    MR. HILL: Sure. Within three days of the accident, we had almost a thousand
    reports. Probably within a day or so of the accident actually, we were
    approaching a thousand different reports that varied from people calling in or
    sending E-mails and saying, "Hey, I looked up in the sky and saw this bright
    dot overhead," to, "I saw something happen and I want to talk to somebody
    about it," or videos where somebody called and said, "I have a video and I
    think I see something coming off the orbiter," or," I have still photography
    and I think I see something coming off the orbiter. Do you want it?" For the
    first day we spent most of our efforts sorting through a stack of close to
    1,000 reports and, within about two weeks, about 3,000 reports that were all
    across the map. Just like that. We very quickly figured out if we were going
    to learn anything technically or anything of engineering value, it probably
    was not going to be in a report where people say, "Hey, I looked up and saw
    something in the sky," unless they said, "I looked up and I clearly saw
    something fall through the sky and smoke was coming off and that thing hit the
    ground close to my house." And there aren't very many of those. 
    So we very quickly narrowed it down to let's look for videos as far west as we
    can, let's look for still photography of the orbiter in the sky as far west as
    we can, particularly time-lapse photography, and let's look for people that
    are amateur astronomers because those people are going to have a lot better
    secondary data like GPS coordinates on exactly where they were standing, exact
    zoom settings on their cameras, things like that, or exact time references,
    say, in the case of the video. 
    Within a week we had it narrowed down to about 15 videos that form the core of
    what we now have on this map, with the videos that actually show debris
    shedding that we were able to time to within plus or minus a second. Then we
    spent some time after that first week or so prioritizing which of those we
    have the best celestial cues in, which of those that we think we are most
    likely to be able to calculate relative motion, and then which of those, like
    Debris 6 and 14, did we think would be so substantial that we might have a
    chance of getting them all the way to the ground and finding them in radar and
    putting boots on the ground and go and collect the hard way. 
    So I would say it took us about a week to sort out the initial round, maybe a
    week after that before we knew very well which of the videos, which of the
    stills were going to give us any meaningful data. From there on, it was a
    continuous process of analyzing the video, measuring the relative motion,
    generating these footprints, and then searching through radar. And without the
    public having taken these pictures on their own - because, to our great
    surprise, people are still very interested, apparently, in the space program
    and these folks got up before sunrise and went out on their own and stuck
    their cameras up in the sky and most of them also knew exactly where to look
    in the sky because we knew they were amateur astronomers - without those
    folks, we wouldn't know any of this. I mean, these people are definitely our
    heroes. And there are about 15 to 20 of these people or these videos that are
    probably the most key to us having been able to do any of this analysis.
    ADM. GEHMAN: We join you in being thankful for that. We're also thankful for a
    crystal-clear morning across the entire southwest part of the United
    Ted Molczan
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