Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Literally the Best Reviews: Bringing Columbia Home

Bringing Columbia Home -- Michael D. Leinbach & Jonathan H. Ward
Arcade Publishing
400 Pages

It only seems appropriate that as I write this review, we are on the cusp of observing the fifteenth anniversary of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. I pre-ordered this book from Amazon when I saw it while searching for John Young’s autobiography. As a self-avowed space enthusiast, I tend to read any book I can find on the American Space Program. This book came last week, obviously timed to the anniversary of the accident. I finished it just last night, and it is easily the freshest book I’ve ever reviewed.

Many people can tell you where they were when Kennedy or Reagan were shot, or where they were when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. I can tell you with perfect clarity where I was when I learned of both the Challenger and Columbia accidents. For the former, I was walking home after a half day of sixth grade classes at Washington Hunt Elementary School. My mother, knowing how I was obsessed with the space shuttle, waited at the door for me to walk around the corner. She hurriedly beckoned me to tell me the news. I sat the rest of the afternoon watching the coverage.

As for the Columbia, it was a Saturday morning in Western New York. After a late night of hockey the night before, I was still in bed, nursing a migraine. My dad saw it on the news and called over to the house to make sure I knew about it. Wendy woke me up with the news, and just like in 1986, I spent several hours watching the news coverage. My migraine disappeared.

When Bringing Columbia Home arrived at the house, I thumbed through a couple of pages to see how much techno-speak I would have ahead of me. With only a quick glance, I could tell that this was less of that jargon and more about the emotions faced by everyone involved as they faced the loss of the crew and the flagship of the Space Shuttle Program. Even though I had other books in line before this one, I finished the novel I was reading and went immediately into this book.

From the beginning, this was a difficult book to read. I don’t mean that the writing was over my head. It is obvious from the first sentence that Michael Leinbach, as launch director on the mission, was very emotionally invested in the story. I could feel the pain he was feeling as the realization of the severity of the disaster settled into his mind. Even a decade and a half after the event, the memories of that fateful day were still raw. Between Leinbach and co-author, Jonathan Ward, they put that rawness in the very ink of the page.

There were times when I was reading this book, that I actually had to set it down and do something else. The authors did such an admirable job of conveying what the astronaut corps, NASA, law enforcement, and local searchers felt as their lives were put on hold for the largest recovery effort in history, that even I felt some of those emotions. Generally, it takes two or three days for me to make it through a book of this size. This was a six read reading for me, as I took my time to understand the extent of the Columbia accident.

This book is about the human side of the accident. If you pick up this book hoping for all the gory details on what happened to the astronauts, or how the crew cabin looked after falling 200,000 feet to earth, you’ve bought the wrong book. That is never detailed, nor should it have been. This book is about the countless governmental agencies and the civilians who assisted them in recovering the ship and its passengers. The detail goes into the relationships that were formed as a result, and how everyone worked together for a common goal, something that seems lacking so often today in society.

There is a little bit at the beginning of the book about the launch of Columbia with its fatal foam flaw, as well as the investigation at the end of the book of what exactly went wrong. In these sections, there is much more techno-speak than in the real meat of the book. Still, it is not overwhelming. Meanwhile, the lasting friendships formed as searchers walked nearly hand in hand, day after day, in a search for any piece of the spacecraft, make up most of the story. After all, the goal of space exploration is to explore more than just the cosmos. It is also to explore our human relationship as part of the universe.

Michael Leinbach and Jonathan Ward have put a book together with Bringing Home Columbia that proves that Americans can come together in the darkest of times to make the world brighter. The stories detailed within these pages gives us hope. Even if you’re not interested in the space shuttle or the space program, you could read this book simply for the human interest. This is a well written book that will tug at your heartstrings just as it did for each of the searchers involved on that February day in 2003.

Craig Bacon dedicates this review to Rick Husband, William McCool, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark, Ilan Ramon, and everyone who assisted in the recovery efforts of the Space Shuttle Columbia.