NASA established a list of “hot items” that it most wanted to find in the search and recovery of Columbia‘s debris. Many of these items were memory devices, items that might contain information about the state of the orbiter prior to the accident. Memory devices that NASA sought included the shuttle’s five general purpose computers, cameras, film, videotape, and one very special box – the Orbiter Experiments recorder, or OEX box. (This device was also known as the MADS recorder, short for Modular Auxiliary Data System.)
As the first spaceworthy orbiter, Columbia was instrumented with hundreds of sensors—strain gauges, temperature probes, and the like—to study the loads and stresses on the vehicle during ascent and reentry. These sensors fed into the OEX box, which recorded the data on magnetic tape. Columbia was the only orbiter with an OEX recorder. And quite coincidentally, the box was going to be removed after STS-107 in order to save weight as part of Columbia‘s refit to fly a supply mission to the International Space Station.
If NASA could find the OEX box or its data tape in the tens of thousands of pieces of debris that had landed across East Texas, the tape might solve the mystery of what caused the ship to disintegrate.
NASA sent the search leaders and debris collection center managers in Texas the photo shown above and asked them to keep their eyes open for this box. If it was found, they were to immediately call Dave Whittle, who was leading NASA’s Mishap Investigation Team.
On February 7, 2003, NASA asked Greg Cohrs, who was coordinating the US Forest Service’s search efforts in Sabine County, Texas, to provide a team for a special search in neighboring San Augustine County. The previous days’ searches in one area of San Augustine had turned up some gear that had been near the OEX box in Columbia‘s avionics bay. Unfortunately, the searchers did not find the box.
When the box failed to turn up after more than a month of ground searches, NASA feared that the box might have fallen into Toledo Bend reservoir, between Texas and Louisiana. The US Navy was already conducting sonar sweeps and dives in the reservoir, but had failed to find any debris. NASA asked them to concentrate in an area near the Texas shoreline in hopes that the OEX box might turn up.
On March 19, two US Forest Service contracted fire crews from Florida were grid-searching San Augustine County near Magnolia Church. Firefighter Jeremy Willoughby was searching in a pine stand on a gradual slope, when someone in the group spotted a metal box sitting on the ground near a small crater. They wrapped up the box in plastic sheeting, and it was placed in the back of the team’s collection truck.
Making their rounds for the day, Greg Cohrs and FBI special agent Terry Lane stopped by Magnolia Church, which was a staging area for the day’s searches. They looked in the back of one of the pickup trucks and saw a box wrapped in plastic sheeting. Recognizing that it could be a very significant find, Cohrs and Lane took possession of the box and drove it to the NASA collection site at Hemphill.
Greg Breznik was running the site for NASA. He unwrapped the box. It was almost pristine. Although there were holes where connectors had been torn off, the rest of the box looked immaculate. He could even read the government property tag on it. Breznik phoned Dave Whittle, who said, “I want it on my desk now!”
Cohrs and Lane returned to the Florida crews to tell them the good news about what they had found. Willoughby said that his crew unanimously decided that they would celebrate the find as a group accomplishment, and that the person who found the box would not be named.
On the other side of the world, the US began the invasion of Iraq that evening. MSNBC broke into its war coverage briefly to announce that “Columbia‘s black box has been found.”
NASA sent the box to Imation Corp. in Minnesota to clean the tape. The box then came to Kennedy Space Center, where the tape was duplicated, and then the tape went to Houston for analysis. As hoped, the OEX tape contained information about the state of Columbia right up to the second when the orbiter broke apart. This data, combined with the telemetry received during the mission and the analysis of the orbiter’s debris, confirmed that plasma had entered the leading edge of the ship’s left wing and melted it from the inside.
After the reconstruction phase ended, the OEX recorder went to the Columbia Research and Preservation Office in the 16th floor of the Vehicle Assembly Building. Several years later, it was sent to Johnson Space Center, where it can be seen in one of the administration buildings.