What to Do with the Debris?

Fourteen years ago, in early April 2003, we were about 2/3 of the way through recovering Columbia’s debris from Texas, although we didn’t know it at the time. But the number of debris trucks arriving at the reconstruction hangar at Kennedy Space Center had begun to tail off in the preceding weeks, so we knew at some point they’d stop altogether.

Two initiatives were being worked at that time. First, what to do with the debris, and secondly, how would debris found after operations ended in Texas find its way to us? What were the people finding items after the recovery operations ended to do with the material they found?

I’ll briefly address both now, with the intent to more fully discuss them in subsequent postings.

As stated in a previous entry in this blog, Administrator O’Keefe was instrumental in the decision to learn from Columbia’s accident and in particular, from the debris. Having gotten his unofficial “go” to develop the concept to study the debris, the task to actually put the concept into practice fell on a few of us in the hangar. I asked Scott Thurston, Columbia’s NASA Vehicle Manager, to develop the necessary plans. He did an outstanding job. He and a very small group debated where to store the debris, how to “advertise” that it even existed for study, the requirements for organizations to obtain select pieces, the logistics of lending it to them (it’s not easy lending government property to private organizations), and the proper approval authorities and documents. And, by the way, how to do this for many years to come – also not easy.

The results of their labor and Scott’s leadership are clear. The debris loan program is very much still alive, with several hundred pieces either actively out for study or with studies already concluded. The material is stored in a climate-controlled room in the Vehicle Assembly Building, also allowing easy access for employees to view it. It has a full-time NASA curator—Mike Ciannilli—who also developed and runs NASA’s Apollo, Challenger, Columbia Lessons Learned Program. Mike was very active in the debris recovery as an aerial searcher in Texas, and his passion for sharing the lessons makes him the perfect person for the job.

As with debris from Challenger, some pieces of Columbia continue to be found. To deal with this in Texas, a program involving local authorities is charged with taking calls from anyone finding pieces that may be from Columbia. They in turn call Ciannilli, who is responsible for determining the authenticity of the find and returning the material to KSC to join the other 84,000+ pieces of the ship’s debris.

The most “famous” piece found in this manner was a cryogenic tank from Columbia‘s fuel cell system that had been submerged in Lake Nacogdoches since February, 2003. A severe drought in the summer of 2011 lowered the lake level to the point that the tank was high and dry.

tank lake nacogdoches
An aluminum cryogenic tank from Columbia’s fuel cell system, uncovered in Lake Nacogdoches in August 2011, more than eight years after the accident. (NASA photo)

Numerous other pieces have been found by farmers, ranchers, hikers, etc. I suspect debris will continue to be found from time to time. We know for certain that three of the six main engine turbine pumps are still out there somewhere. But like the three that we recovered, they are no doubt buried deep in the East Texas or Louisiana dirt or at the bottom of a body of water. They will probably never be found.

powerhead
One of Columbia’s powerheads—found buried fourteen feet under the Louisiana mud. (NASA photo)

We officially wrapped up recovery operations in early May, 2003. The vast majority of Columbia that we will ever find is already home. And some of it is being used to advance our understanding in materials and structures subjected to extreme conditions. The goal is to design future spacecraft that can better withstand such conditions. One such example is a seat design capable of withstanding very high torsional forces.

Columbia continues her scientific and research missions, well after her last space flight. That legacy would have made her final crew proud.

Author: Mike Leinbach

Mike was the final Space Shuttle Launch Director at NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center. He led the launch team for all Shuttle missions from August 2000 to the end of the program in 2011, giving the final "go" for every launch.

3 thoughts on “What to Do with the Debris?”

  1. I was fortunate enough to spend over 60 days picking Columbia up 30+ days flying over the debri field and 30 days over seeing Helicopter base in Ennis Texas south of Dallas. It was humbling experience knowing that we had lost the crew of seven and the oldest shuttle. 35 years ago today she flew the first time and I was working at pad A at that time. Doing what others dreamed 🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸 God speed Columbia 🙏🙏🙏🙏🙏🙏🙏

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was a sophomore in high school when Grissom, White, and Chaffee died in Apollo I. I had watched, followed and fell in love with the space program since the very first Mercury launch, while reading science fiction about how things would be done SOON. The deaths hit me hard, but my enthusiasm was unabated. I am glad that there is a program to learn from mistakes and failures. All of the deaths in the public and private space programs should have meaning. It should be that any one of the crew members could take a look at what is being done and learned, and that they would be proud of the efforts. As a nation we owe it to them, their families, and their workmates. Robert E. Bauer, Louisville, Kentucky. kc4hm@arrl.net

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