The Second Week of the Recovery

NASA and the country held memorial services for Columbia‘s crew beginning with a service at Johnson Space Center on February 4. The next day, a service was held at Washington DC’s National Cathedral. On February 7, NASA leaders gathered on the Shuttle Landing Facility runway at Kennedy Space Center. Columbia‘s first pilot, astronaut Robert Crippen, delivered a moving eulogy to Columbia and her crew.

NASA’s press release of February 5 stated that remains of all seven Columbia crew members had been returned to Dover Air Force Base. That was factually correct, but not complete information. What the release did not say was that two of the crew were still missing. Up to 1,600 Forest Service personnel, National Guard troops, employees of the Texas Department of Public Safety, and volunteers combed the woods of Sabine County over the weekend of February 8 and 9 in a desperate search for the crew. Cold rain, sleet, and miserable conditions plagued the searchers.

On February 10, one of the National Guard units located the remains of the sixth of Columbia‘s crew near Toledo Bend Reservoir. Remains of the seventh and final crew member were found the next day. The sense of elation and relief felt by the searchers can’t be adequately described. Local resident Mike Alexander, a volunteer searcher since the day after the accident, broke into tears when he heard the announcement. “I just started crying out there in the woods,” he said. “I couldn’t help it. I thought, ‘We got closure now.'”

Volunteers in Sabine County had provided almost all of the food and shelter for the searchers. It was impossible to determine precisely how much food had been donated or how many thousand meals had been served at Hemphill’s VFW hall. Best estimates were that this relatively small community and a handful of volunteers had prepared and served 30,000 to 50,000 meals in two weeks. The community had donated over $620,000 in services to the recovery—at no cost to the federal or state government.

“It’s just people helping people—that’s what this small town is about,” said Roger Gay, Hemphill VFW’s commander. “Everybody likes to help everybody else, and they don’t expect anything from it. It was an occurrence that happened, and we dealt with it the best way we knew how.”

NASA’s Dave King summed up, “The people of East Texas made you proud to be an American, because they sacrificed and gave everything they had to try to help us. It was unbelievable what they did for us.”

Elsewhere in the 250-mile-long corridor where Columbia‘s wreckage came to Earth, hundreds of United Space Alliance and NASA personnel from Kennedy Space Center, along with representatives of the EPA, were working with local authorities to investigate debris sightings, check the pieces for contamination with hypergolic propellants, and then bring the items back to collection centers. The debris being found ranged from pieces of the wing to items from the crew module.

On February 7, searchers near Palestine, Texas found a videotape cassette, one of many that had at least partially survived the accident. Astronaut Ron Garan collected the tapes and flew them on a T-38 to Washington, DC, where he inspected them at the NTSB’s headquarters. Most were blank or were data tapes. However, one caused him to freeze when he started playing it.

It was the cockpit video of Columbia‘s reentry.

“The hair stood up on the back of my neck,” Garan said, “because we didn’t know how long the video was going to last or what it was going to show.” To his relief, the tape ended several minutes before the first sign of trouble.

NASA publicly released the video on February 28. The tape showed Columbia’s crew happy, being professional, and enjoying the ride. They were passing the camera around, smiling at each other, and remarking on the sight of the glowing plasma surrounding the orbiter. They were obviously unaware that anything was wrong with their ship.

Author: Jonathan Ward

Jonathan Ward is an author of books on the history of American manned spaceflight. He also serves as an adjunct executive coach at the Center for Creative Leadership.

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