Reconstruction Begins

Just a few days after the Columbia accident, NASA’s management discussed where and how to reconstruct the debris from the ship that was being found in Texas and Louisiana. Telemetry from Columbia cut off more than 30 seconds before the accident, and the ship’s Orbital Experiments (OEX) recorder—akin to an airplane’s black box—might not have made it to the ground. There was a chance that the debris could provide clues about the cause of the accident and how the shuttle broke up.

On February 3, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe and his deputy, Bill Readdy, announced that Kennedy Space Center would be the site for reconstructing Columbia. Steve Altemus from the launch team volunteered immediately to set up and lead the day-to-day operations. Mike Leinbach was named to head the overall reconstruction effort, as the “up and out manager” a few days later.

The Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) hangar at the southeast end of the Shuttle Landing Facility runway was a perfect location—convenient, secure, and big enough for the task. NASA quickly negotiated a lease for the hangar—which is owned by Space Florida, even though it’s on KSC grounds—and got to work setting it up.

rlv-reconstruction-hangar
The RLV hangar (foreground) at the southeast end of the Shuttle Landing Facility. (NASA photo)

The NTSB and Boeing Air Safety provided guidance in laying out a grid. NASA would “peel open” the orbiter so that its external surfaces were lying face-up on the hangar floor. The dimensions on the floor grid were 10% larger than real life, to give examiners room to walk around between the pieces of debris and examine them from all angles. NASA set up the outline of the orbiter as if the shuttle had been towed into the hangar nose-first.

 

Placing items relative to each other on the grid as they would have been on the orbiter enabled researchers to find patterns that might point to the cause of the accident, as opposed to damage that occurred after the vehicle broke up.

reconstruction-hangar-layout
The floor plan of the RLV Hangar.

Even though EPA and NASA were decontaminating the debris as it was collected in the field, NASA needed to plan for the possibility that some pieces of debris might come back with toxic hypergolic propellant residue. A decontamination area was set up near the receiving area. NASA also eventually used a second hangar—adjacent to the Apollo/Saturn V Visitors Center—to store large components made of “friable” materials that could cause respiratory problems if their particles or fibers were inhaled. This included sections of the shuttle’s payload bay doors and composite-overwrapped pressure vessels.

 

NASA set up a walled-off room at one side of the hangar. Here, astronaut Pam Melroy and her team of engineers and technicians would be responsible for reconstructing Columbia‘s crew module in three dimensions.

Materials for internal systems (power, hydraulics, miscellaneous plumbing, etc.) and the Spacehab experiments were stored in bread racks on the sides of the hangar.

Everything would be photographed, barcoded, and logged into a database when it entered the hangar. GPS coordinates had been taken for every piece recovered in the field. As the reconstruction team positively identified various components, they could use this information to target searchers to areas where critical items might be found.

NASA set up the hangar, established the operating procedures, and staffed the reconstruction positions within 10 days.

The first two truckloads of material arrived from Barksdale Air Force Base on February 14, the same day Mike Leinbach returned to KSC from leading the Rapid Response Team at Barksdale. Trucks brought more debris every other day for the next several weeks, and would continue arriving regularly until the last shipment on May 6.

KSC security special agents escorted every shipment, accompanied by representatives of other NASA centers, who wished to participate in the honor of bringing Columbia home one final time.

The hangar operated with two shifts per day, six days a week, with about 150 personnel per shift, as people began the massive job of identifying and studying tens of thousands of pieces of Columbia‘s debris.

debris-and-tire-03-11-2003-ksc-03pd-0638
By March 11, 2003—less than a month after hangar operations began—nearly 34,000 pieces of debris were in the hangar, totaling 43,200 pounds, or roughly 19% of Columbia‘s dry weight. (NASA photo KSC-03pd-0638)

This is the first of many articles in the coming months about the reconstruction activities.

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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