Over the course of the 100 days following the Columbia accident, NASA and the EPA responded to 12,000 calls from residents in Texas and Louisiana about space shuttle debris sightings.
Representatives from NASA and the EPA personally investigated every call. The EPA was responsible for checking the debris for hazards, rendering it safe, and then transporting it to one of the four collection centers along the debris path in Texas. The NASA representative made an initial determination whether or not the debris was likely from the space shuttle.
Many of the items found by local residents were either extremely hazardous (like pyrotechnic devices or pressure vessels with hypergolic propellants) or turned out to be crucial to the accident investigation. NASA was deeply indebted to the citizens who called in such findings.
However, some of the items were of more dubious origin.
Here’s a story about a Columbia debris sighting that won’t make it into our book, but I think it’s worth sharing. Pat Adkins, who was a KSC quality inspector, was deployed to Sabine County, Texas to aid with the recovery of Columbia debris. Here’s his story:
“We responded to a call about some unusual debris. A policeman was holding back a crowd and had placed crime scene tape all around this mound of white, crystalline-looking stuff. And it had one little blue dot in the middle of it. There was nothing else near it—no cylinders, no containers, no nothing.
“The woman who lived there was with him, and the policeman was kind of rolling his eyes. And so that kind of set the tone for us when we looked at him.
“I pulled her aside, and I questioned her. The woman said, ‘This was not here the night before.’ And I said, ‘There’s just nothing from the shuttle that this could possibly be. It didn’t come from the experiment packages.’ But she was insistent.
“I started looking around at all the other stuff that’s in the back area. It’s on the lip of the woods, in back of all of their places, and it’s like everybody’s junkyard back there.
“I said, ‘So tell me something: Do you have a water softener?’ She said, ‘I don’t, but my neighbor does.’ I said, ‘Well, you know, you use rock salt in water softeners.’ And she responded, ‘Yeah, I know you use salt. But this isn’t salt, ’cause it didn’t taste salty.’
“I chuckled a little bit. The poor EPA guy with me is starting to lose it. And even the cop was laughing. I said, ‘So let me get this straight: You think this came out of a spacecraft that has broken up in the upper atmosphere, and you saw it, and thought it was odd enough to call people about. But yet you tasted it?’
“And she got indignant and said, ‘Well, y’all think we’re a bunch of bumpkins anyway.’ Those were her words, I’ll never forget it. And I looked at the EPA guy, and I said, ‘I don’t remember ever saying that.’
“I said to the EPA guy, ‘Look, the only way that this lady is gonna have peace of mind is if we take this, so let’s get a bag.’ And so we dug it up out of her yard, and then smoothed her yard over.
“It was rock salt. The EPA guy had that bag of rock salt in the back of his truck for three weeks. He didn’t know what to do with it. I certainly didn’t want it in my collection area!”