The space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry over Texas ten years ago today.

The Des Moines Register — where I served as graphics editor — went all-out with a number of breaking news graphics. We did this because: a) We had a strong local angle: An Iowa woman was among the seven astronauts killed that morning. b) I have a strong background in space topics, therefore, I have the ability to plan and research something like this quickly. And c) A number of my staffers came in on a Saturday morning to lend a hand.

This was a bit remarkable because the Register, at the time, distributed its Sunday paper to all 99 counties in Iowa. Drop-dead deadline for the first edition was 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Then, as now, that seemed incredibly early to me.

Here’s a quick look at the double-page spread inside the paper the next day, containing five separate graphics built on deadline. Click for a larger view. But we’ll go into more detail momentarily.


We didn’t win SND awards for our work that day, but that was never the intent. The intent was to explain — in terms our wonderful Iowan readers can understand — what happened and how it all unfolded. After all, it’s a complicated subject: This is rocket science.

I posted a number of these graphics online — I would start my first blogging gig later that spring for the American Press Institute. Several of my friends sent me notes of admiration. Among them was Jay Anthony — at the time, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill — who asked me write up something that could explain to his students how we pulled it off that day.

So five days after the Columbia disaster, I sent Jay a diary-like essay that reconstructed the events of Feb. 1, 2003.

Here — annotated with a few updates, edited as little as possible and illustrated with the work itself — is that essay.



Here is the narrative about how we pulled off Sunday’s first-day coverage of the shuttle Columbia incident.

Feel free to use it any way you wish. I hope it helps your students.

SATURDAY, FEB. 1, 2003

Sharon woke me up around 8:30 a.m. central time, which is pretty early for me on a Saturday. I had promised Sharon and Elizabeth we would go out to buy stuff for Elizabeth’s 10th birthday party, which is next Sunday, and that we’d look for a new microwave.

When I came downstairs, Sharon had breakfast almost ready. I ran downstairs to my office in order to take my morning blood-sugar test. While I’m waiting for the machine to spit out its results, I usually scroll though my messages to see if I received anything important overnight.

Near the bottom of the list — because it had just come in — was a post on my Star Trek toy collecting mail list. The post read:

Re: [PT] OT: Shuttle Columbia destroyed during landing…

Terriblel news… the Shuttle Columiba broke up during reentry over Texas….


My first thought was: Oh, man; that’s not funny. What’s this jackass doing?

Two minutes later, he had posted again:

My first note was full of misspelling because I’m shaking so badly…

I sat there and stared at my screen for a moment. You don’t think, do you, that this guy is serious?

But then I remembered: The shuttle was, in fact, supposed to land this morning. I don’t keep up with shuttle missions like I used to, but I had been watching this one because of the first Israeli astronaut on board, along with an astronaut who had been born in Ames, Iowa.

That’s when the light bulb went on.

I tore up the stairs, brushed Elizabeth away from the TV set, and slammed the channel over to CNN — where, sure enough, they were running the video of the multiple contrails over Dallas.

Sharon leaned over the kitchen rail and said, “I guess that means there are shuttle parts falling all over Dallas.”

I shook my head and told her that at that point, the shuttle is moving at something like 15 times the speed of sound. Those pieces will come down in Louisiana or the Gulf of Mexico.

Since I was already dressed to leave the house, I damn near left then. But I decided to take five minutes to gobble down my breakfast first. I wasn’t sure when I’d eat my next decent meal. While I ate, I ordered Elizabeth to retrieve my briefcase and my empty Poynter book bag from my office. Just a few minutes later, one of my artists — Mark Marturello called. He had seen the news already. I told him to meet me at the office.


Mark was my illustration specialist. I didn’t really know just yet how I might use him. But Mark was the kind of guy who can do damned near anything.

A native of Des Moines and a graduate of Grand View College in Des Moines, Mark spent the early part of his career working for the U.S. government in Fort Knox, Ky. Even by the time I arrived there in 1999, he had worked for the Register for several years, winning tons of awards. He also free-lanced — and still does — for various magazines and art agencies. Find a fan page on Facebook containing samples of his work.

I took the book bag over to the shelf where I keep my space reference books and damn near raked the books into the bag with my forearm. Then I grabbed my coat and dashed out the door.

Sharon said that maybe ten minutes after I left, my boss called to ask me if I could go in to the paper. Sharon tells me she told him, “Shame on you, Gage! You, of all people, should know he’s already there!” Later, I told her that by phrasing it that way, she might have earned me a big raise.


My boss at the time was deputy managing editor Gage Church. A 1986 graduate of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Gage spent four years as a copy editor and page designer for the St. Petersburg Times before moving to the New York Times in 1997. In 1998, he returned to Des Moines to become the Register‘s news editor.

Gage departed in 2006 — three years after I did — earned a master of divinity degree in 2009 from the United Theological Seminary in the Twin Cities and served a year as the resident chaplain at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. In 2011, he was named pastor of the Congregational United Church of Christ in Ogden, Utah. Gage’s longtime partner, Tim Sharp, was our online editor at the time. Find Gage’s blog here and his Twitter feed here.

I was surprised when I got to the Register — I was the first one in. The only folks in the newsroom were our fax clerk and our obit clerk. I didn’t even know they worked together Saturday mornings. I guess now I have something I can gossip about.

A few reporters had phoned in already and were driving in. I asked the obit clerk to call the two managing editors and our copy desk to make sure they were on their way. I realized most of our desk would be asleep and might not hear about the news for hours.


In my narrative, I refer to Aric West as a “fax clerk,” but that doesn’t really do him justice. Aric was the Radar O’Reilly of the newsroom. He knew everyone, he knew what they were doing and he knew how to help them — sometimes, before they knew it themselves.

Aric really should have been a columnist. Long after I left Des Moines, Aric started a blog in which he documents his life as a downtown resident of a medium-sized midwestern city who refuses to drive, preferring bus and train transportation. And who loves food. Lots and lots of food. Find his blog here and his Twitter feed here.

The fax clerk is a big internet guy, so I asked him to begin combing the NASA web sites. Within minutes, I figured, the rest of the world would descend upon the NASA sites, clogging them up completely. I suggested he download as many high-rez photos, cutlines, biographies and so on that he could get. Later, we calculated that Aric had about 30 minutes of good time before NASA’s main archive ground to a halt.

The next person to arrive was reporter Lynn Okamoto. She’s a real trooper. Later, they put her on one of the best stories we had all day: astronaut Laurel Clark‘s uncle and aunt still live in her birthplace of Ames. Those same folks lost a son on 9/11. Lynn’s story made page 1A and the wires. What a story.


Lynn Okamoto — now, Lynn Campbell — is currently the Des Moines bureau chief for, a subscriber-based service for political news. A 1994 graduate of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Lynn spent several years as a reporter for the Des Moines Register. Find her Twitter feed here.

I flipped on my TV — dammit, I had no cassettes for the VCR! — and I began sketching out ideas for graphics, based on nothing more than gut feelings. That’s where I was lucky that this story was on a subject I knew so well. It’s a lot easier to have gut feelings when you’re familiar with the material.

I knew I wanted to do a cut-away of the shuttle. I knew I wanted to diagram a normal re-entry, showing at what point Columbia disappeared. I knew I wanted to tell the history of Columbia, with a chronology of her previous 27 flights. And I knew I wanted to do a breakout of some sort explaining what are the thermal tiles and how they work. I sketched out what these graphics would look like and how I’d play them around stories and jump space.

I knew we had, even without taking the Sunday paper up in size, two open facing color pages (but not a doubletruck). I knew this because I had produced a large diagram showing landowners around the new regional mall under construction, plus a two-page photo montage to run across the top of the package.

Click my actual sketch from that day — with red labels added for the benefit of my editors — for a larger view.


My thought was to jump the 1A story to one page. I figured the tiles would come under scrutiny before the day was out, and that we’d probably have a sidebar. We’d package the tile graphic with that story. I’d string the re-entry piece across the bottom — leaving a gutter between the pages — just like my mall land photo was to go across the top. I’d strip the Columbia chronology down the side in a two-column rail.

While I sketched, I also called my staff and asked them to come in. Scott Kaven was scheduled for the night shift — he was to come in around 2 p.m., but he said he could be in within 45 minutes. Jeff Bash said he’d be there in a half-hour. Matt Chatterley had a pretty important family matter, but he said he could come in for a couple of hours before he had to leave. Katie VanDalsem was on the other side of the state and couldn’t make it in.

So let me introduce you to the rest of my team that day…


When I arrived at the Des Moines Register in the spring of 1999, Jeff Bash — then a student at Grand View College there in Des Moines — had already been hired to be my graphics intern. The problem was: I wanted to bring in only folks who had student journalism experience. Jeff, like so many wonderfully talented Grand View students, was a giften illustrator and designer. But he had never worked on a student paper or touched an infographic.

So what did he to that summer? He worked his ass off and knocked my socks off. That fall, we kept him on part-time, made him full-time that winter and he just stayed on with us through and past graduation the next year. The next time I had a position to fill, he brought me his school buddy Katie. I ended up hiring her as well.

When I left the Register in October 2003, I nominated Jeff to take my place as graphics edtior. By the time the Register laid him off in 2008, he actually served in that position longer than I had.

Jeff now manages a marketing team at Bankers Trust in Des Moines.


I just mentioned the very strong illustration program at Grand View College. Scott’s dad was the professor there.

When I got to the Register, Scott was already a self-taught expert in 3D graphics. The problem was: No one quite knew how to use that skill in the paper. We figured it out, though, and he went from being the rookie night-side locator map guy to one of my biggest weapons.

Scott eventually drifted away from the paper is now works as an animator with Applied Art & Technology, there in Des Moines. Find his Facebook mixed media portfolio page here and his YouTube video page here.

Here’s a picture taken of me with my staff at the Register, later that year.


On the far left is Katie VanDalsem. Like Mark, Jeff and Scott, she was a Grand View graduate. After I left the Register in 2003, Katie got married, changed her name (she’s now Katie Kunert) and became a mom. For a long time, she ran MomsLikeMe, a web site for Des Moines-area mothers.

Of my entire staff, she and Mark are the only two still there. Find Katie’s Twitter feed here.

And second from left is Matt Chatterley. A graduate of Brigham Young University, Matt had spent years himself as the Register‘s graphics editor. During our time together, we found new ways to work (what, in my opinion, were) his two greatest (but underused) specialties into the paper: His watercolor skills and his research and writing skills.

In 2000, he wrote a book — Wend Your Way: A Guide to Sites Along the Iowa Mormon Trail. I fondly remember the day he came to me and sheepishly asked for time off so he could be interviewed by a life radio talk show. Dude, are you kidding me? As a content-driven graphics editor, I was delighted to have a published author on my staff.

I’ve lost track of him now, but last I heard, he had moved back to Utah and was working as a trainer for the DTI company. That seems like a great fit. Matt is one of the most patient people I’ve ever met. I’ll bet he’s a fabulous teacher.

OK, I think that’s it for introductions. Back to our narrative…

Missing Matt and Katie would be a big problem later when it came time to write text for the graphics — they are my two big researchers. Since they were both MIA, I was forced to research and write every word for every graphic. That’s in addition to art directing, editing, dealing with the copy desk, co-ordinating with the rest of the newsroom…

Then I started pulling out my books and marking pages with post-its. Because I’ve worked so many breaking news stories before, I already knew the old trick of making sure I write, on the edge of each post-it, what is on that page. If you don’t do this, you wind up with a book with 15 or 16 post-its sticking out of it and no idea which is which: “Which one of these stickynotes was the diagram of the landing gear…?”

About that time, my staff started arriving. As soon as I saw Mark, I gave him my largest shuttle references and I asked him to get started on a large cut-away diagram. Mark’s okay with hard news, but he really excels at illustration. I figured we’d do this as a illustrative piece, rather than as a technical drawing-type of piece. I told Mark to Illustrate, to use color — the shuttle is black-and-white; we’d need color to keep the page lively — and to think of it as less a diagram and more of an illustration for a children’s book. I sketched out a page and a size for him and turned him loose.

Next, Matt came in. Since I only had him for a short while, I asked him to draw maps of Racine, Wisconsin (Laurel Clark was from Ames, but she grew up in Racine) and of the east Texas area where debris, unbelievably enough, was still falling, a couple of hours later.

Scott showed up next. Scott’s a big 3-D artist, so I chose him to do the meatiest piece of the day: The step-by-step of re-entry. I toyed with the idea of having Scott work on the big drawing, but I know from experience that good, detailed 3-D art takes a long time to build and a long time to “render” in high-rez form. So I put Scott on the piece that would need several little shuttles. I wanted them at all sorts of odd angles. If Scott built them as 3-D models, we could tilt and turn ’em to our heart’s content. I sketched out what I was looking for, gave him some reference and turned him loose, too.


A quick note about reference: In addition to the two-dozen or so books I toted in, I also had my file folders of space and shuttle stuff. I have four enormous legal-width file cabinets at home with all sorts of crap in ’em. And I’ve kept this stuff over the years for occasions just like these. In my shuttle file, for example, I have an enormous clip file from Columbia‘s first mission in 1981. I also have Time magazine’s issue covering that mission. I also have the instructions to a Monogram-brand model kit of Columbia I built one summer during my college years in the early 1980s.


130201ShuttleModelKit03 130201ShuttleModelKit02

Those model instructions came in very handy. Scott used them as the basis for his 3-D rendering. Mark was using the Time magazine piece and some of my books.

When Jeff arrived, he and I both jumped on various NASA web sites to see what technical stuff we could pull off before the site ground to a halt.

The term now, of course, is “scrape.”

Here was the way the basic shuttle archive portal page looked in 2003:


Click on any particular mission — the last flight of Columbia was called STS-107 — and you get a gallery of shots in high resolution, along with cutline material.


In case you’re interested, here is that very page now.

It was important to copy the cutline material into a text file. For some reason, NASA didn’t embed that info into the “file info” field of its Photoshop documents. And they still don’t, last I checked.

Unfortunately, I had waited too late — the sites were at a crawl. I managed to snag one nice high-rez photo of Laurel Clark, working on an experiment on SpaceHab — in Columbia‘s cargo bay — back on Monday.


I grabbed the photo — remembering to also download the cutline — and passed it along to the copy desk. I was tickled to learn later the copy desk used it, four columns wide, in a color spot.

While that was very nice, this is the one I wish I had stumbled across before the NASA site crashed:


Unfortunately, I didn’t get my hands on that picture until a day or two later, when NASA revived its web site.

What I really wanted was access to all the technical drawings NASA distributes on its “Human Spaceflight” info and picture galleries. I wanted a good close-up of the tiles and I wanted historical photos of all the orbiter vehicles. And I really really wanted schematics that showed the four types of thermal tiles and coverings on the exterior of Columbia — which may be different from the exteriors of the other orbiters — and what temperatures each can withstand.

What I wanted was something like this, which I pulled much later from that same online archive:


But no luck. NASA’s Manned Spaceflight server was jammed.

So I went to plan B — I had Jeff scan a diagram, from one of my old space shuttle books, that showed actual temperatures experienced by a shuttle during a mission in the 1980s.


This particular book had cost me a whole dollar and 98 cents years ago in a book warehouse. It was a crappy book — the entire thing consisted of NASA handout photos and diagrams. Most of the text was typed in directly from technical manuals. This book dated from the early 90s. The info might be outdated somewhat, but it was all I had.

Not only was this book cheap, it still has the $1.98 price tag on it.


Matt dropped by to tell me he had to go. He gave me a finished Racine map — which we used in the first edition but not the final — and a map of East Texas showing the debris field that was being reported at that time. He also took the liberty of taking care most of our other, non-shuttle related graphic corrections for us, which the first copy desk staffers to arrive were sharp enough to bring back early.

Jeff kept busy by building page headers for the inside pages.


He used the same icon-photo of Columbia to build a similar header for the top of 1A.


Normally, I’d weigh in on the design of 1A — or actually help build it — but I was too far up to my neck in technical printouts and books.

Around this time, the managing editor stopped by to look over my sketches — he signed off of them as is — and to ask me to give a reporter a hand. Often, shuttles perform experiments on behalf of the University of Iowa and Iowa State University. What, he asked, is the best way, without cold-calling science professors at home and without trying to call the NASA media relations switchboard, to find out if there were any Iowa experiments on board Columbia?

The STS-107 PDF media guide on the NASA site was obviously unreachable. But were there any mirror sites? A quick Google search turned up, which would prove extremely valuable later. I printed a list of the experiment fact sheets and delivered them to the reporter, who was sort of stunned that it took us maybe five minutes to find something on which he had spent a solid hour.

So now it was time to begin writing. I decided to start with the meatiest piece, the re-entry graphic. It took me maybe 15 minutes to write the text about how a normal re-entry occurs. I used the general, boilerplate stats NASA hands out in its press kits. I put in a line that said something like “At this point, Columbia breaks up and debris rains on East Texas…” The text went on to show how the shuttle was supposed to land.

But then I decided to poke around the mission profile page at Perhaps they’d have more precise numbers about Columbia‘s planned trajectory.

That’s when I found what the site calls the “Mission Status Center.” What it was, essentially, was a “blog.”

Reading back over this, ten years later, I’m amused at how unfamiliar I was at the time with blogging. Here’s what SpaceFlightNow looked like at the time.


Even more hilariously, I go on to explain to Jay and his students what is a blog and how a blog works, even referring to an article Poynter posted at the time.

Surely by now, you’ve all read the piece on the Poynter website about the reporters at Florida Today who keep a “blog” of shuttle missions. Their “blog” has been cited as a good primary source by a number of journalists. What these guys do is hang out in the press room at NASA with their laptop. During a mission, NASA constantly gives verbal updates on what’s happening. These guys simply type that information into their “blog” and post it immediately.

Florida Today is owned by Gannett, the same company that owns the Des Moines Register. So I wish I could tell you that I found this particular “blog,” which [was] still available at, helpful.

But it wasn’t. I found the one at better. I damn near stood up and cheered when it popped onto my screen.

Here is a screencap of the blog, at a point minutes before Columbia broke apart.


Using this “blog,” I was able to construct a detailed, minute-by-minute account of what happened to Columbia that morning. As always, I left out the fluff and concentrated on the good stuff. I folded in pertinent background material, a few sentences from the latest AP report, and I shipped it off to Scott. Now, Scott could see what text he was illustrating. I sketched out the re-entry fire effect and the banked-turn effect I wanted and I left him to complete his rendering.

Here’s how that graphic turned out. These are horizontal, so they’ll look tiny here on your screen. Click either of them for a much larger view.

Here’s the left side of the spread…


…and here’s the one for the right side of the spread.


I might add that the purple background didn’t cut off abruptly like you see here. It faded out slowly, running behind the stories above it.

Next, I checked in to see how Mark was doing. Mark really caught me by surprise — I wanted an illustrative look to the cutaway, but Mark — as is his custom — had taken it to the next level. He drew in pencil on vellum, scanned that into Photoshop and was painting under his drawing. For some reason, I had pictured a yellowish or yellow-brown drawing on a background that would fade to white — Perhaps I had Leonardo DiVinci‘s drawings in mind. But Mark had put the shuttle on a deep blue/black background. And he had turned the shuttle in a different direction than I had expected.

Okay, no problem. I mentally changed my sketch to move the shuttle from the upper left of the spread to the upper left. And I told Mark to extend the background color another two inches up — I figured we could reverse the headline out of the color.

Again, here’s my sketch with the shuttle in the upper right…


…and here’s the finished spread with the shuttle in the upper left.


I coached Mark on a few technical items — he had the seats misplaced, just a bit — and I went back to my desk to write copy blocks for his piece.

The idea was to keep the cut-away simple as possible. I tried to compile data about all the rocket engines on Columbia, but gave up after I realized how long the text would run. It took me maybe an hour to write the text for Mark.

Here is Mark’s finished piece. Click for a larger view.


Around this same time, I started compiling text for the Columbia chronology. Columbia had flown 28 missions, including this one. While NASA’s main servers were choked, I discovered the Johnson Space Center and Kennedy Space Center sites were still operating. I found at the KSC site a directory of all Columbia‘s missions. I spent maybe 90 minutes writing a detailed history of the orbiter… so when I gave it to Jeff, he discovered I had written waaaay too much.

Dammit. More wasted time. By now, it was coming up on 4 p.m. I needed to be done by 6:30 or so to make our 7:30 first edition deadline. I was running out of time.

The guys suggested we get a pizza to go from the Marriott, next door. I had forgotten to eat, which is probably one reason I was starting to feel drained. That’s one bad thing about diabetes — you can’t let yourself miss a meal. We got the pizzas and stuffed them down without really missing much drawing time.

Not long after, the managing editor pulled the copy desk and the department heads together for a quick budget meeting. I learned that our news editor, on vacation in Milwaukee, had driven down to Racine to write about Clark’s home. Not only that, we also had a reporter on vacation in Texas. He drove to Nacogdoches to write about the debris that fell there.

One of our columnists offered to write a “bonus” column. When the editor accepted, the columnist sheepishly admitted he had written it first and then offered it. The entire newsroom pulled together to cover the story and to work all the local angles. Astronaut Peggy Whitson, another Iowa native, was visiting her folks this weekend. Donald Pettit [who, at that very moment was on the International Space Station] is the son of a former Des Moines police chief. We had local angles coming out of our ears.

While Jeff struggled with my history text, I wrote the tiles text. That went pretty quickly. I never did find a good tile photo to run with that piece, so Jeff asked me if we could scan a photo from my $1.98 shuttle book. The photo was originally a NASA handout photo and therefore was in the public domain — why not just “steal” it? We put a NASA credit on it and let it rip.

Here is the finished tiles graphic.


Note the “stolen” NASA handout photo at the bottom left. It frustrated me greatly to not have access to the NASA photo archive. Even in 2003, I was addicted to easy internet access for my research.

Here is the source for the temperature info again, side-by-side with the finished graphic.

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We trimmed my history enough to work in a large sidebar on the entire shuttle fleet. There have been five shuttles total; the loss of Challenger and Columbia make three left. Jeff found photos of all five in the Register‘s in-house photo archive.

Here’s the finished history of Columbia chronology, with a tint box pullout of the entire NASA shuttle fleet.


By now, we were getting close. Scott and I tweaked text and image placement on the re-entry piece. He ran out of time for first edition, so he had to go without the flaming re-entry effects I wanted, which made the first-edition version look rather bare. We got them in for final, though.

One thing Scott did that I loved was to add a background gradient behind the re-entry steps. When I first saw it, I thought: Whoah, waaay much purple! But when I put a color print by a print of Mark’s cutaway, I realized the colors tied together well. When Mark added just a touch of brick red to his piece and Scott added the red/orange flames, the pages really started to come together.


Tint boxes behind the tiles and shuttle fleet graphics were colored a neutral taupe, which seemed to balance the purples and brick reds. And the surface temperature graphic added a splash of color as well. Mark, Scott and Jeff worked together to work out a palette that worked well on the same facing pages. And they did it while I was busy writing.

After Mark printed his cutaway for the desk, an editor pointed out that Columbia didn’t carry its robot arm on this mission — that’s why the astronauts couldn’t examine the exterior of Columbia for missing tiles [checking became routine for all subsequent shuttle flights]. Mark blotted out the arm in his Photoshop file and removed my text box. Later, Mark mentioned that he really, really thought the arm helped fill some of the space above the drawing and under the headline, so I had him put back his original version for second edition and I rewrote the text box to say the arm didn’t fly this time.

While I was busy editing the big pieces, one of the guys gave our Texas map to the copy desk. We never did get around to updating the debris field on the map. That’s something we really screwed up — the actual field was south of what we showed. It didn’t occur to me the map needed fixing until the next day.

When we got back the first edition page proofs, I saw where AP had moved a brief chronology from NASA showing when the data had dropped off their computers, the temperature in the left wheel well rising, and so on. The sidebar ended with President George W. Bush‘s quote, “Columbia is lost,” which I thought was an odd way to end a chronology. Also, our copy desk had chosen to leave the times in the Eastern time that AP had used, while all our graphics were in Central time.

I asked the night news editor if he’d agree to kill that sidebar for second and allow me to build a new graphic that took the substantive “left-side data” info and put it with a drawing of Columbia‘s left side. We could do this for second edition, I said. The editor agreed, so I quickly rewrote the AP text, which Jeff paired with a stock shuttle drawing from Gannett News Service.

Here’s our quickie graphic redoux for second edition of an AP text sidebar that ran in first.


I sent my staff home around 10 p.m., after nearly 12 hours of work. I stayed around another three hours, sending our graphics to the Gannett News Service and making corrections between second and final editions. For example, we corrected the spelling in the headline for Scott’s piece: “Fiery,” not “Firey.” Hell, how often do I use that word? *Sigh*

And I had plenty of time to fix that damn map but never thought about it.

I didn’t get to bed until 3 a.m. Sunday.

When I saw the final edition the next morning, I sure was happy with everything. My guys had really kicked ass. Page one — with which I had virtually nothing to do — looked great.

Here was the Register‘s page one the next day, designed — as I recall — by design director Lyle Boone.


I thought 1A was terrific — the design and photos were great, but I really loved the heds: “16 minutes from home, spacecraft erupts in ruin.” Wow, what an evocative headline.

I didn’t go in at all Sunday. There was a press conference late Sunday that revealed even more details about the possibility of ice or insulation from the shuttle’s external tank damaging tiles on the orbiter during launch. I sketched out a graphic and thought of whipping something up, but with driving time and all, I would miss first and second editions and not really have time to do anything good for final.

We held the idea and used it, with even more fresh stuff Monday, for Tuesday’s paper. Even with “old” news, I almost sold the graphic for Tuesday’s 1A. We ran it on 2A where I got more room anyway, since four columns on a six-grid is larger than four on a Gannett-style seven-grid.

This was the story to which I referred to here. These are frame grabs from a NASA surveillance video of the launch of Columbia. Focus on the brown-colored tank, just below Columbia’s belly.


Here, there’s a light-colored puff in that spot that wasn’t there before. This, NASA said, was probably part of the insulation on that tank, peeling off and impacting on the leading edge of Columbia‘s left wing.


Here, that bit falls away to the left, away from Columbia‘s wing. Presumably, after bouncing off of it.


But what are you looking at, exactly? The picture is zoomed in a bit too much for someone who’s not used to staring at a model kit of the shuttle to understand, perhaps. So I asked Matt Chatterley to complete the scene around the picture with watercolors. We built that into the left side of our graphic for Tuesday’s paper.


So we have the rendering with which to orient yourself, the three frame grabs and then a repeat of some of the tick-tock info we had used earlier to explain how an impact on a wing might have resulted in a structural failure when it was time for Columbia to come home.

Along the right side is a tiny bit that explains just what that big, orange-brown thing is in the first place: An external fuel tank for Columbia‘s main engines. Just a few minutes after launch, the tank falls off into the Atlantic Ocean.

The next Friday, Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine reported that the Air Force had taken a long, long, long-range photo of Columbia moments before it broke up. The picture seems to show the orbiter with a misshapen left wing. Meaning the hole caused by the falling foam insulation might have been quite large.

Here’s the graphic I worked up with Katie VanDalsem, who finally got to work on something for this story. She had been out of town the previous weekend.


Yes, that’s the left wing in the little picture.  The shuttle is moving from lower left to upper right.  You’re looking at it from below.

Note the rail along the left side of the graphic. I finally got to explain the five types of thermal protection that normally kept Columbia from burning up during reentry.

My final visual contribution to this story came later still, when we ran a profile of LeRoy Cain, who had been flight director in Houston when Columbia broke up. Turned out that he, too, was from Iowa. I found this picture of him in the NASA archives


…but even more interestingly, I found this picture posted, a few days later, in the archive for that last flight of Columbia.


That’s Mission Control in Houston, obviously. But look at the map on the right. Note the change in color right over the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Look at the body language on the little guy standing there at his console.

That was taken just as controllers realized something was amiss.

We were careful not to make too many assumptions in the cutline, but we also ran that in the Register. The same day it was in print, the New York Times ran the same photo. Great minds and all.

The lesson: Don’t wait for the wires to move the photos you need (or, in this case, the photos you don’t yet know that you need). Find the original source of government handout photos (NASA or the Dept. of Defense online archives, the official White House Flickr feed and so on) and monitor those. It just might give you a head-start over everyone else.

Now, back to my letter to Jay…

And that’s how we provided all that graphic coverage of the Columbia disaster.

Afterwards, I sent a batch of our stuff off to Poynter, thinking they’d post a page of shuttle graphics. They used some from Atlanta and from Tampa and Minneapolis, but that was about it. I thought our stuff stacked up pretty well against the rest, but what do I know? For some reason, Poynter didn’t post it. So I tried to upload samples to, but even that resulted in broken image links.

In frustration, I built a little mini-web page with my own website space. Since then, I’ve been overwhelmed with responses from folks. A sampling:

From Charlotte Carl-Mitchell:

Wow! I’m very impressed with what you and your staff did in such a short time. Even though people think of the Internet and TV as being the most visual news sources, you’ve shown that you can have the best of both – the in-depth analysis that newspapers are known for as well as eye-catching graphics. Congratulations. It’s in times of tragedy, we see how much we need such sources of information.

From Bart Jarmusch:

I read through the info you posted on your website, and I have to say that you and the staff of your paper did a terrific job in explaining the disaster and the relevant workings of the shuttle.  I checked out the links to the articles, and those were very well done too.  I wish our local paper had this kind of talent.  Great work, especially considering the traumatic circumstances.

From Chris Prescott:

…great coverage of the shuttle story by your paper.  You and your whole department deserve a big thumbs up.  It was very informative but didn’t go over your head with scientific jargon.

From Robert Porter, a former NASA employee:

Nice stuff on the website.  Thanks for sharing.  It’s very much appreciated.

From Naru Williams:

…I have read your graphic and article explaining it.  I wish to tell you that I enjoyed them very well. I graduated from UNC-CH this past May, with a major in journalism, my concentration being graphic design. From a designer’s standpoint, the graphics are informative, sensative to the story, and pull the reader to read the article itself, much like all good graphics are supposed to do. …Keep doing that good job Mr. Apple, and tell Matt Chatterley, Jeff Bash, Scott Kaven, Mark Marturello, John Carlson, Lynn Okamoto, Angela Bragg and Lyle Boone they did a job well done.

From former Register artist Lisa Frasier, now a senior editorial artist at the Orlando Sentinel [now, in fact, Lisa is a freelance designer in Orlando]:

Thanx for allowing me to look at your pages at another site. You all did an excellant job!

From Michael Dabrowa, graphics editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution [and now a communications manager for an Atlanta law firm]:

great stuff Charles, i especially liked the shuttle-temps graphic.

From Chris Kirkman, assistant art director of the Washington Post [and now a card and board game publisher in Chapel Hill, N.C., and an adjunct instructor at UNC]:

Great looking graphics for Sunday’s paper! I’m a big fan of the “sketched” shuttle (I’m a big pencil art kinda guy), and the “Fiery Descent” graphic is excellent.  …just wanted to send some compliments your way. Best of luck with the continuing disaster investigation.

From Daryl Moen, professor at the University of Missouri and writer of textbooks on newspaper design:

Charles: terrific work. What I like about the front page is that it pairs the shuttle picture with people react pictures. Too many pages left out the human aspect, and there is no emotional impact without it.

From Eva Finley, my mother:

George and I were in Houston yesterday when the rocket exploded. It was chaos there. ABC set up their base station in the hotel where we were staying… we were only about one mile from the Space Center. I looked for you today when they had the debriefing at 3:30. I just knew you’d represent the Register because you know so much about those rockets. Ha!

I hope this little exercise will be somewhat illuminating for those of you hoping to go into infographics as a career. It’s hectic at times, but the feeling of accomplishment you get after a day like this… wow. I feel like we did our readers some good.

Thanks for reading.

Charles Apple

Graphics editor, the Des Moines Register

Feb. 6, 2003

Man, that seems like a million years ago now.

In some of the presentations I give, I’ll tell my students about the work we did that day in Des Moines and I’ll sum up with a list of lessons learned. Perhaps the biggest one was this…

Be proactive.

If I had pulled in my staff and waited for an editor to come along and “order up some graphics,” we’d have lost hours and hours. Instead, I recognized the significance of the breaking news, I recognized it as a topic I know pretty well, and I knew my editors trusted me to jump into action. My incredibly talented staff trusted me enough to jump along with me.

So when the managing editor and the AMEs came rolling in a few hours later, they found I had assumed the shopping mall story would hold, I had drawn up a new plan to use that space and we were already hip-deep in research and production. In my mind, the key moment of the day was when the managing editor looked at my sketch, damned near said “wow,” and then nodded and told me to go for it.



That’s how you manage a proactive manager. That’s how you encourage proactive thinking.

I’m not sure we do enough of that these days. Especially at the level of the regional, mid-sized paper.

This has been a big week for space disaster historians.

  • And that picture of Columbia falling back to Earth on the front of the next day’s Register? That ran in 1,400 newspapers the next day. Read more about it here.