Why does the NASA Flight Director say, "Lock the doors.", when realizing that disaster had struck for Space Shuttle Columbia, back in 2003?

Does he mean lock the doors on the space shuttle that's falling down, or does he mean lock the doors in the NASA building, in order to begin some internal investigation, and nobody is allowed to leave, as a matter of policy?

For reference, it happens at about 3:14 in this YouTube video:

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    $\begingroup$ Basically, at that very second, the entire control room has essentially become the equivalent of a crime scene, everybody in it a witness, and everything in it evidence. There is nothing anymore to do to save this crew, but there is lots that can be done to save the next. $\endgroup$ Aug 9, 2019 at 9:53
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    $\begingroup$ @JörgWMittag: "crime scene"? While I think I get what you're trying to say (and that would have been more appropriate as an answer), that's a heavy handed and inaccurate description. $\endgroup$
    – GreenMatt
    Aug 9, 2019 at 15:26
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    $\begingroup$ @GreenMatt: He's not alone in drawing this parallel. "Later this was taken by some critics to be a typical NASA reaction—insular, furtive, overcontrolling. And it may indeed have reflected certain aspects of what had become of the agency’s culture. But it was also, more simply, a rule-book procedure meant to stabilize and preserve the crucial last data. The room was being frozen as a crime scene might be. Somewhere inside NASA something had obviously gone very wrong—and it made sense to start looking for the evidence here and now." ... $\endgroup$ Aug 9, 2019 at 15:28
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    $\begingroup$ @GreenMatt: I wrote "the equivalent of a crime scene". In fact, typical accident investigations as performed e.g. by the NTSB seem to be have even more rigorous standards about preserving evidence than a typical investigation of e.g. a burglary, so it would make sense to apply at least the same rigor here as, say, for the crash of a Cessna. Also, 7 people had just died of unknown but definitely non-natural causes, and most of the crucial evidence and witnesses were in this room, so what else would you call it? $\endgroup$ Aug 9, 2019 at 16:10
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    $\begingroup$ @GreenMatt accidents, especially those causing loss of life, are effectively 'crime scenes' until ruled otherwise. You have no way of knowing at the time whether or not the source of the accident was an unforeseen factor, willful negligence, or deliberate malicious action until after it has been investigated. [If someone wraps their car around a telephone pole, the scene gets treated the same initially whether it turns out they were drunk or that they had a heart attack.] $\endgroup$ Aug 9, 2019 at 16:27

4 Answers 4


This is indeed part of the procedure that is invoked when a contingency has occurred. It is part of Standard Operation Procedure 2.8 - JSC Contingency Plan, which can be found in the Shuttle Flight Control Operations Handbook (link to 538-page pdf - referenced here) on page 2.8-1. It provides the steps to be taken to secure all data for future investigations (including any trash!).

It doesn't literally say to lock the doors, but item 11 on the checklist (Table 2.8-2) says:

Excerpt of "All console and workstation positions contingency plan checklist" from Shuttle FCOH

Ensure area security: Personnel manning MCC positions listed in table 2.8-3 will assume responsibility for area security.

Which may be interpreted as "locking the doors".

  • $\begingroup$ I'm trying to find the PDF in the nasa.gov domain, but so far without luck. $\endgroup$
    – Ludo
    Aug 9, 2019 at 8:08
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    $\begingroup$ This is it. Note that what Flight really says is "Flight, GC, lock the doors" and GC is listed in table 2.8-3 as responsible for the FCR. $\endgroup$ Aug 9, 2019 at 11:25

Does he mean lock the doors in the NASA building, in order to begin some internal investigation, and nobody is allowed to leave, as a matter of policy?

Yes, this. It's part of a standard procedure to ensure evidence is preserved for the investigation. It's to prevent people entering as well as leaving.

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    $\begingroup$ Besides preserving evidence, it keeps everyone whose job it is to figure out what happened from being constantly asked “what happened” by media, bosses, and other random curious parties who may have legitimate business on-site but not in the MCC. $\endgroup$ Aug 9, 2019 at 12:47
  • $\begingroup$ @RussellBorogove, I was going to add the same, which might be a significant reason for locking the doors. They need to concentrate on what happened, and people looking for sound bites will literally get in the way of that. $\endgroup$ Aug 9, 2019 at 16:41
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    $\begingroup$ @RussellBorogove A very good reason to stop people from talking is that the retellings will tend to change their story. Talking to each other or to outsiders can change it toward a group narrative or a "it wasn't me" narrative. Change of memory through conversation is normal and no matter how it develops, the change can lose valuable information. $\endgroup$
    – Pooneil
    Aug 9, 2019 at 20:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Pooneil in other words, generation loss as exemplified by broken telephone $\endgroup$
    – Anthony X
    Aug 11, 2019 at 18:34
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    $\begingroup$ @AnthonyX I think Pooneil is referring to a different phenomenon, whereby one's own memory can be changed in the telling. $\endgroup$ Aug 12, 2019 at 15:56

While this is much granier than the BBC snippet, it does contain the audio overlay and is the same video the BBC clip has, but contains the full event cycle. "Lock the doors" happens around 12:24

Key parts of the full audio (time in the video first)

  • 13:41 - OK all flight controllers on the Flight [Director] loop, we need to kick off the FCOH [Flight Control Operations Handbook] contingency plan procedure, FCOH checklist, page 2.8-5.

    From the link in Ludo's answer we see that 2.8-5 is

    Notify (or verify the notification of) MCC and other JSC support areas.

  • 15:10 - Ok, all controllers, on Page 9 of the FCOH procedure, you need to make sure you step through the actions required in Step 20. That's for your workstation logs, display printouts -- there's a whole list of data collection items we need to make sure we log through

    And Step 20 is

    1. Collect the following, as appropriate, for subsequent turn-in or possible use by the Board of Investigation.
  • 16:04 - Folks, listening in on the Flight loop -- No phone calls off site, outside of this room, our discussions are on these loops; the recorded DVIS loops only. No phone calls, no transmissions anywhere into or out.

    This is the purpose of "lock the doors". The fact that we have this video of Houston and what went on in its entirety is critical preservation of evidence. Taking time to talk offsite, even for official business, could have meant vital data (like thought processes and decision making) was lost.

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    $\begingroup$ Edited to put in DVIS - Digital Voice Intercommunication System $\endgroup$ Aug 11, 2019 at 23:45
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble Couldn't make it out from the audio or the manual. Thanks $\endgroup$
    – Machavity
    Aug 11, 2019 at 23:46

Because the Handbook told him to was assuredly the proximate cause for him saying the phrase, and evidence preservation is undoubtedly a good reason the manual says to do so, but--so much as a movie and my memory can be trusted--in The Right Stuff, during Mercury, higher ups overruled the Flight Director on an important call during an anomaly. I believe the historical and ultimate reason they lock the doors is to ensure Mission Control staff is allowed to do their jobs focused on the mission and astronauts' lives, and not be interfered with by people seeking a particular PR or political outcome.

  • $\begingroup$ if you're going to vote my answer down which provides interesting context, how about you provide a source which backs up your position? $\endgroup$ Aug 19, 2019 at 1:02
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    $\begingroup$ That's not how SE works. People can downvote if they don't think your supporting references are sufficient. They don't need to prove a case. You do. $\endgroup$
    – T.J.L.
    Aug 30, 2019 at 19:03
  • $\begingroup$ Of course I can't make wild claims and expect others to disprove me. See Russel's Teapot. But the strength of my answer is not solely dependent on the amount of evidence I supply. Insight is a thing. $\endgroup$ Sep 2, 2019 at 7:34
  • $\begingroup$ Do you have any relevant citations (including possible work experience in the field) that would provide any measurable weight to your personal insight? You have to support your position and "because I say so" doesn't count. $\endgroup$
    – T.J.L.
    Sep 3, 2019 at 12:53

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