Linda Ham

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Linda Ham addresses the Columbia Accident Investigation Board following the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003

Linda Ham was the Constellation Program Transition Manager at NASA. She was formerly the program integration manager in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Space Shuttle Program Office. In this position, she chaired the mission management team for the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia mission STS-107 that ended with the catastrophic destruction of Columbia upon its planned reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. As a NASA manager, Ham was a U.S. government (public) employee.

Ham's actions and decisions, along with those of several other senior NASA managers involved in mission STS-107, were discussed repeatedly in the official Columbia Accident Investigation Board report, often in the context of management actions, practices, or culture that contributed to the disaster. Neither she nor anyone else was individually blamed in the report for the deaths of the seven Columbia astronauts, but she was singled out for exhibiting an attitude of avoiding inspection and assessment of actual shuttle damage.[1] After the report's release, Ham was demoted and transferred out of her management position in the space shuttle program.

Early career[edit]

Born as Linda Hautzinger, Linda Ham grew up outside Kenosha, Wisconsin. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Parkside in 1982 with degrees in mathematics and applied science. Soon after graduation, at twenty-one years old, she applied to and was hired by NASA.[2]

Ham's first position at NASA was as a propulsion systems monitor at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. This was a "back room" position where she offered real-time specialist advice and support to the Propulsion Engineer, a flight controller in Mission Control. She was soon promoted to a position in Mission Control itself. In 1990, she married U.S. Navy pilot and NASA astronaut Kenneth Ham, with whom she had two sons, Ryan and Randy (This was Linda's second marriage. She had no children from the first marriage). As one of her superiors, Ron Dittemore, later commented, "she had so much talent and her intellect was so strong she could compete with the best in assessing the facts. She rose through the ranks fast at a young age because of her ability to assimilate information".[2]

Flight director[edit]

Linda Ham as ascent flight director on the launch day of STS-95

The first mission she worked as flight director was STS-45, which launched on March 24, 1992. During her first three missions, all of which took place in 1992, she was assigned to the "Orbit 3" shift, later known as "Planning", a quieter shift which generally coincides with the space shuttle crew's sleep cycle.[3] For STS-58, launched October 18, 1993, she moved up to lead flight director. Ham applied for astronaut training herself, but was refused because of issues with her eyesight.[2]

Ham worked three missions in 1997 and 1998 as the ascent/entry flight director. One of these was STS-95, on which United States Senator John Glenn (D-Ohio) flew as a payload specialist. A week after the flight landed, Ham was caricatured in a Saturday Night Live skit, which featured the deceased sports announcer Harry Caray as the host of a space and astronomy talk show. Portrayed by Joan Allen, Ham was asked how many survived the mission.[4]

In 1999, Ham again served as lead flight director, this time on the STS-103 mission. Launched on December 19, 1999, it was technically demanding, involving servicing the gyroscopes of the aging Hubble Space Telescope. "This flight will be a challenge", said Ham before launch, "I can assure you of that".[5] Although challenging, the mission was a success, and all its objectives were met.[6]


In 2000, Ham was promoted into a position in the Space Shuttle Program Office as a personal assistant to the shuttle program manager. In 2001, she became the shuttle program's integration manager, one of six senior managers responsible for shuttle program operations.[7] In this position, Ham chaired the mission management team (MMT) meetings that oversaw shuttle flights while in orbit and reported directly to the shuttle program manager, Ron Dittemore.[8] At the time of the Columbia mission, Ham was also serving as acting manager of shuttle launch integration, which the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) would later call "a dual role promoting a conflict of interest".[9]

Columbia disaster and investigation report[edit]

The crew of Columbia mission STS-107

Mission STS-107, the 113th mission of the space shuttle program and the 28th flight of Space Shuttle Columbia, lifted off January 16, 2003, from the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a 16-day, dedicated science mission. A large piece of insulating foam separated from the shuttle's external tank left bipod ramp area 82 seconds after launch and struck Columbia on the leading edge of the left wing.[10] Two days later, after reviewing film of the launch and detecting the foam impact on the left wing, NASA engineers made a request to Space Shuttle Program managers for an in-orbit, high-resolution image of the shuttle's left wing to check for damage. The shuttle program managers declined the engineers' request to image the shuttle's wing before reentry.[11]

At 9:00:18 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on February 1, 2003, during reentry, Columbia disintegrated over Texas, killing all seven members of the shuttle's crew.[12] In total there were three requests for imagery of Columbia in-orbit during the 16 days mission, to search for potential damage on the wing, that were rejected, according to the same source. In addition, the Board identified 8 missed opportunities to determine the extent of the damage that got no response from the mission management or no action was taken. The first of these was an inquiry on day 4 of the flight, by the chief engineer of Thermal Protection Systems, if the crew had been asked to inspect the damage; they never received an answer. The opinion of the program managers that the debris strike was only a maintenance-level concern was established early in the mission, making it increasingly difficult for concerned engineers to be heard by those with decision-making authority. As mentioned in the Report:

In the face of Mission managers' low level of concern and desire to get on with the mission ... the engineers found themselves in the unusual position of having to prove that the situation was unsafe - a reversal of the usual requirement to prove that a situation is safe.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board commissioned to investigate the disaster determined, in a report released August 26, 2003, that the physical cause of the destruction of Columbia was damage to the shuttle's left wing caused by the foam strike during launch.[13] The board also determined that several organizational and human factors contributed to the disaster. These included:

Reliance on past success as substitute for sound engineering practices; organizational barriers that prevented effective communication of critical safety information and stifled professional differences of opinion; lack of integrated management across program elements; and the evolution of an informal chain of command and decision-making processes that operated outside the organization's rules.[14]

It was in the context of these organizational factors that the CAIB discussed the role of decisions made by Linda Ham, as well as by other NASA managers, in contributing to the disaster.

According to the book "Comm Check..." by William Harwood and Michael Cabbage, Linda Ham squelched requests for external photos to be taken after the requests had been sent by two individual departments at NASA. Engineers in these departments were concerned that the foam strike on the left wing, clearly captured by launch-day video recorded for every launch, had caused more damage than initially thought. Based on computer modeling later proven inadequate, Ham's mistaken belief was that the damage was not serious, and that at most it would merely lengthen the time necessary to refurbish Columbia between missions. Referring to the supposed minor damage in a review meeting, she was quoted as saying that "...there's nothing we can do about it anyway".[15] Ham decided to quash the request for high-resolution imaging of the shuttle, based on her belief that the damage was too minor to be of consequence.[15]

Ham's on-the-job persona was reported to be somewhat brusque,[15] and she was perceived by some below her in the chain of command as being occasionally less than willing to embrace dissenting points of view. This was part of a larger cultural problem within NASA which was addressed at length by the CAIB.[15] Even if the hole in the left wing had been discovered immediately, according to flight director LeRoy Cain, (it was assumed that) there were few if any realistic options to either circumvent the damage or launch a rescue mission, though two realistic options were worked out later. Ham was subjected to intense criticism after the accident.

Former Flight Director Wayne Hale worked outside proper NASA channels in an effort to get imaging of the damage,[16] even though Ham had the authority over this decision. In the aftermath of the mishap, Hale was promoted to Space Shuttle Program Manager and then on to NASA Headquarters and Ham was demoted.

Aftermath of Columbia investigation[edit]

On July 3, 2003, NASA's new shuttle program manager, William Parsons, reassigned three senior engineers who had been involved in the Columbia disaster, including Linda Ham. NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe took the opportunity to praise Ham publicly, saying that the reassignment was "no reflection, in my judgment, on the competence or diligence or commitment or professionalism of anybody...."[17] According to the Washington Post, "O'Keefe said she is so talented there is going to be a 'bidding war' for her among NASA facilities".[18]

Ham's new position was as assistant to Frank Benz, director of engineering at the Johnson Space Center. However, she stayed in the job for less than six months. Her marriage to astronaut Kenneth Ham also ended in divorce during this same period. In December 2003, she took a temporary position from NASA at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, where she worked on federal plans for the storage and distribution of hydrogen fuel.[19]

Linda Ham returned to the Johnson Space Center where she held the job as technical director for the Constellation Program Office. In this position she was involved in the major decisions involving the Ares, Orion and Altair vehicles.[when?][citation needed]



  1. ^ Columbia Accident Investigation Board, (2003) Volume 1, Chapter 6, p. 138.Chapter 6(pdf). Retrieved April 19, 2017.
  2. ^ a b c Cabbage, Ex-flight boss
  3. ^ 1992 JSC news releases
  4. ^ "Joan Allen: 11/14/98: Space: the Infinite Frontier". Saturday Night Live. November 14, 1998. 
  5. ^ Carreau, Astronauts to make emergency flight to fix Hubble Telescope
  6. ^ STS-103, Mission Control Center Report #11.
  7. ^ CAIB, Report of CAIB, Vol 1, p. 17
  8. ^ CAIB, Report of CAIB, Vol 1, p. 32; Cabbage, Ex-flight boss.
  9. ^ CAIB, Report of CAIB, Vol 1, p. 200.
  10. ^ CAIB, Report of CAIB, Vol 1, p. 34
  11. ^ CAIB, Report of CAIB, Vol 1, p. 38
  12. ^ CAIB, Report of CAIB, Vol 1, p. 39
  13. ^ CAIB, Report of CAIB, Vol 1, p. 49
  14. ^ CAIB, Report of CAIB, Vol 1, p. 9
  15. ^ a b c d Langewiesche, William (November 2003). "Columbia's Last Flight". The Atlantic. Retrieved February 29, 2012. 
  16. ^ CAIB, Report of CAIB, Vol 1, Part 2, p.152
  17. ^ Sawyer and Pianin, 3 Top Shuttle Managers Replaced.
  18. ^ Ibid.
  19. ^ Cabbage, Ex-flight boss.

Further reading[edit]

  • Starbuck, William H.; Farjoun, Moshe, eds. (2005). Organization at the Limit : NASA and the Columbia Disaster. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 1-4051-3108-X. 
  • Cabbage, Michael; William Harwood (2004). Comm check... Free Press. ISBN 0-7432-6091-0. 

External links[edit]