On February 1, 2003, the nation woke to the tragic news of the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew. As most Americans were first learning about the disaster, a team had already been dispatched to Texas to begin the search and recovery effort. The success of this operation would be critical not only to understanding the cause of the tragedy and providing closure for the crew’s families and the American public, but to determining the future of manned spaceflight itself. National Aeronautic and Space Administration leaders understood the importance of this effort. That is why they sent their best to be in charge—David King.
King arrived on the scene hours after the crash, with no blueprint for how to manage a mission of this magnitude. But he created a totally new process to carry out the search, established relationships with federal and state agencies, and laid the foundation for subsequent NASA officials who would share responsibility for completing the recovery operation. The search for clues and recovery debris eventually spanned more than 230 miles with over 30,000 people working together from more than 100 federal, state and local agencies.
Thanks to King’s efforts, almost 40 percent of the shuttle was recovered, compared to most plane crashes where investigators are lucky to recover 10 percent of the wreckage. The recovery of the debris enabled the agency and the Columbia Accident Investigation Board to complete their investigations, determine the cause of the disaster, and ensure the successful continuation of manned space flight. Just as important, they were able to recover crew remains, identify them and return them to their families to aid in the grieving process.
NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe summed up King’s contributions best when he said, “He efficiently and thoroughly accomplished what needed to be done to lead NASA to the next chapter and move the agency forward.”
NASA’s leadership knew immediately that David King was the right person to lead this effort because of his more than 20 years of exemplary service with the agency.
King began his NASA career in 1983 as a main propulsion system engineer, eventually working his way up to the position of Director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, one of NASA’s largest field centers with more than 6,500 employees. King had tremendous expertise across the entire shuttle program, having served as Launch Director for five Shuttle launches, including missions to the Mir Space Station, the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope.
King was recognized with the prestigious Presidential Rank Award in 2001 and NASA’s Outstanding Leadership Medal in 2000. But perhaps the greatest tribute to King’s service are the words of NASA Associate Administrator for Space Flight and former Shuttle pilot William Readdy, who said King is “a person you trust with your life.” When it is all said and done, King is the type of person our nation needs in government, and our country is stronger for his service.