Chain of Command by Dave Cooke

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Every witness and participant was interviewed to examine the chain of events and the chain of command that led to the Shuttle disaster of Jan 1986. Little known players and every known conversation was scrutinized for clues. NASA contractors and even the military were questioned on their roles. Who knew what and when? Robert T Herres had served in many command positions in both Strategic Air Command and the Pentagon but now in Aug 1984, as "Commander In Chief” CINC NORAD he oversaw a vast array of senior offices and men, squadrons and wings of aircraft, ground support and satellite tracking sensors scatter around the world, looking out for the peace and security of “The Free World” as it was known. NORAD’s space tracking sensors were the backup for NASA as the Shuttle goers to orbit and NORAD was also required to give NASA a COMBO Report (Computation Of Miss Between Orbits) to assure the NASA launch team that the shuttle launch window they had chosen would not intersect the path of any satellites or known debris on it’s way to the final orbit. What if a satellite was re-entering the atmosphere just as the Shuttle was launching into orbit? Could that have been the cause of the breakup? In fact it was not.

With more than a year of senior command under his belt, General Herres was comfortably confident of the men and resources he commanded. He thoroughly trusted their ability to protect North America and to respond to any and all emergencies. So, on 26 Jan 1986 he was back in his office after the 7am morning intelligence briefings secure in the knowledge that his Air Force was awake and in charge of the surface, air and space. After all, he had just been briefed by his Deputy Chief of Operations (DCS Ops) and his Intel Chief that in the previous 24 hrs, NORAD had been tracking every Soviet bomber, ship, submarine and satellite. As was often the case he’d been assured that morning that, "no missile launches had gone undetected”. He always thought that phrase was a bit odd, but that was often the final statement at the end of every morning intel briefing . . . so it was an interesting side note this morning, when it was briefed that “NASA would be launching Shuttle mission STS 51-L within a couple of hours, at 9:38 Mountain Time . . With a Teacher on Board”. . . . Gen. Herres took note of the mission but paid little attention since this was just a routine civilian launch. He reached over, beside his desk, and turned OFF the "NASA Select Channel 1”, a secure TV feed from Houston and the Cape that was always on for every launch and instead focused on his meeting schedule for the day.

Colorado had been unusually warm that January, 1986. I can remember playing tennis outdoors in Colorado Springs, in shorts and a T-Shirt, over the New Years holidays. It was the middle of winter in the Rockies and at 9:30 on the morning of the 26th there had still been no snow and it was already 36deg F well on the way to a high of 45. By contrast, Florida had been below freezing overnight and ice on the launch vehicle had worried some engineers at Cape Canaveral. The Shuttle had never been launched under such cold conditions but due in part to the high public profile of this mission the ill-fated order to launch was given at 11:38.

At 11:39, barely 1 minute after launch, a failure in the right booster seal (a main O-ring seal was too cold), detected within 0.678sec after ignition, led to a devastating chain reaction and explosion that resulted in the total loss of STS-51L and its crew. All the television networks were "live” spreading images of the disaster in real time. There was a long 15 second pause in the running commentary of NASA Mission Control Spokesperson Steve Nesbitt who finally broke the audio silence with “obviously a major malfunction” as the fireball on the screen horrified the thousands of public school children and teachers who had tuned in to see the first teacher in space. Millions watching live around the world knew instantly, this was catastrophic event.

I worked for Gen Herres under the Asst DCS Ops as Deputy Chief, Space Surveillance division and like Gen Herres and the rest of the headquarters staff, I was focused on the NORAD mission that morning and not paying any attention to the NASA SELECT feed. I was expecting a call from Bill Barker a local contractor but when the phone rang the excited woman on the other end blurted out “The Shuttle just Blew Up!” . . . as calmly as I could, I said “Who is this”?” . . she said “It’s your wife, and the Shuttle just blew up on the launch pad.” . . I said “Are you kidding me?, Are you sure?” And she shot back “ yes, I’m watching Dan Rather right now and they’ve replayed the thing 3 or 4 times already . . the shuttle blew up!” . . I said “I’ll call you back” and hung up.

I knew my boss LCol McDonough was not in his office next to me so I immediately ran . . I mean sprinted . . about 30 yards down the hall of the Chidlaw Bldg to his boss the Asst DCS Ops, a full colonel. Filling his doorway rather abruptly I said “Sir, can I speak to you privately?”. There was a civilian contractor having coffee with him at the time and by the look on my face he knew it was something serious. He excused the contractor and asked him to wait in the outer office and I closed the door behind us. “Sir, I think there has been a problem with the launch this morning as I reached over to turn on his NASA Select TV to see the replays that were still streaming. He immediately understood the seriousness of the video he was seeing and I can’t remember what he said but he instantly left the office and went another 30 yards down the hall to CINC NORAD office where he turned on Gen Herres monitor . . . that is how the Commander In Chief of NORAD, learned of the Shuttle Disaster . . . Not through the entire NORAD Command and Control Structure but through the quick actions of Vanda Cooke, wife of a Canadian Staff Officer serving with the USAF Space Command at the time. . . and now you know the rest of the story.