NASA’s contingency plans swung into action within minutes of the accident. An hour later, Administrator Sean O’Keefe named Dave King—deputy director at Marshall Spaceflight Center—to head the recovery of Columbia and her crew. At about the same time, FEMA told Scott Wells to head from Jonesboro, Arkansas to Lufkin, Texas, where the FBI was already starting to try to put its hands around the accident. Someone from the US Attorney’s Office in Lufkin secured the used of the town’s Civic Arena for use as a command center. King flew to Lufkin, which became the nexus of the federal response to the Columbia accident for the next three months.
Meanwhile, Dave Whittle from Johnson Space Center, who was designated to head NASA’s Mishap Investigation Team, looked for a secure site where he could coordinate the logistics for the remains of the crew and the debris from the ship. He identified Barksdale Air Force Base, near Shreveport, as a suitable site. Barksdale was home of the Air Force’s 2nd Bomb Wing. Its B-52s were preparing for the imminent invasion of Iraq.
The first 79 members of Kennedy’s Rapid Response Team, led by Mike Leinbach, deployed to Barksdale on the evening of February 1 and set up shop in “Nose Dock 6” to support Whittle in the debris recovery effort. Over the next several days, several hundred more people would deploy from Kennedy to Barksdale and then to the field.
If the number of teams seems confusing, this is a simplified list. NASA named fourteen official teams and working groups within the first few hours of the accident for its own internal purposes and to support the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB). This was in addition to representatives from EPA, FBI, NTSB, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the US Coast Guard—ultimately over 450 federal, state, and local agencies and organizations—that responded to the accident.
By the evening of February 1—still less than twelve hours after the accident—the Lufkin Civic Center was a maelstrom of activity. Hundreds of “Type-A” leaders from the various agencies staked out space, set up their command centers, and tried to figure out how to help. To the untrained eye, it appeared to be absolute chaos.
Mark Stanford from the Texas Forest Service was assigned by his manager to implement the Incident Command System at Lufkin. A veteran of many “all-risk” type of incidents, Stanford knew when he walked in the door at the Civic Center that it would take two to three days for order to emerge from the chaos. This was a normal part of the process. Rather than trying to assert his authority, he had learned a tactic for gaining the trust of the leaders: “Find someone who appears to be in charge. Ask him or her what three things are causing them the biggest headaches, then go fix those things. Then you’ll be a valued member of the team.”
One of the most amazing outcomes of the Columbia accident was the remarkable level of cooperation between agencies that developed over the next several days. There were no turf battles. The Incident Command System provided a framework with clear command and reporting structures that allowed each agency to contribute in the areas where it could be most effective.
But it would take several days for FEMA and NASA to begin to get a handle on what was going on.
On the morning of February 2, the NTSB told Dave Whittle’s team at Barksdale that they estimated that no more than 5 to 10 percent of the shuttle would have survived reentry. KSC’s Ed Mango looked at the map on the wall—already populated with hundreds of pushpins marking phoned-in debris sightings—and knew that things didn’t add up. Mango, along with astronauts Jerry Ross and Dom Gorie, drove to Lufkin to investigate first-hand. Gorie made some calls and secured the use of four Army National Guard helicopters to scout the debris field, the extent of which was still unknown.
Mango took one helicopter to Chireno, Texas, where someone had reported finding a tire in their field. How could a piece of rubber survive a hypersonic breakup and reentry? It seemed incredible. The landowner then told Mango that something else had landed in the adjacent farm. Mango found it.
It was a locker from Columbia‘s crew module—and most of its contents were still intact.
Meanwhile, Jerry Ross flew to Louisiana to check out an unusual sighting near Ft. Polk. People had heard loud sonic booms. A US Forest Service team drove around the area to check things out. They passed a water-filled puddle and then noticed: mud was splashed forty feet high on the surrounding trees.
This was not a puddle. It was an impact crater. Ross instantly recognized part of a shuttle engine powerhead poking above the water in the hole.
The national news media and volunteer searchers swelled the towns in East Texas. The population of Hemphill, Texas doubled almost overnight as people came to help with the search. By the end of the second day, searchers had found the remains of two more of Columbia‘s crew. The next day, two more crew members were located. Hopes ran high that the last two crew members would be found soon.
Next time: The CAIB