Thanks to the tireless and incredibly efficient efforts of the Texas Forest Service, the US Forest Service, FEMA, EPA, and NASA, recovery operations wrapped up at the end of April and beginning of May in 2003.
From the middle of February through the end of April, the Type 1 and Type 2 wildland fire crews from the US Forest Service walked every square foot of an area larger than the state of Rhode Island in their search for debris from Columbia. They painstakingly searched forests, fields, briar patches, farms, ranches, swamps. They dodged bulls, avoided snakes, endured heat and cold, suffered through hailstorms, scratched bug bites, steered clear of suspected meth labs, missed their families, and slept in tents during their two to three weeks in the field. Grid searches turned up thousands of pieces of shuttle material that on average was about one square inch—and in many cases, smaller than a fingernail.
Air crews logged over 5,000 flight hours in their search efforts. Divers from the Navy, FBI, Houston Police Department, EPA, Texas Department of Public Safety, and the Galveston Police Department conducted more than 3,000 dives and spent more than 800 hours on the bottom of lakes searching for debris from Columbia. The overall water search effort covered twenty-three square miles of lake bed.
Nearly 25,000 men and women from almost every US state participated in the search operations. The combined effort was over 1.5 million man hours. Searchers recovered more than 84,700 pounds of material from Columbia, equal to about 38 percent of the vehicle’s landing weight. Most emotionally important, the remains of Columbia‘s crew had been recovered and returned to their loved ones.
It was the largest land search and recovery operation in United States history, and the first major incident under the jurisdiction of the new Department of Homeland Security.
Animated graphic showing the progress of the grid searches for Columbia‘s material along the 250-mile-long debris path from February through April 2003. (Courtesy Mark Stanford, Texas Forest Service)
The Palestine, Texas camp closed on April 18. A few days later, the Hemphill collection center closed. Search operations at the western end of the debris field continued for a few more weeks, until the number of pieces being recovered was less than one per grid. All ground operations in Texas ended on April 30, with the Nacogdoches camp closing on May 3 and the Corsicana camp closing the following day. Search operations moved to Utah on May 2 for eight days, as radar had tracked some objects falling off the shuttle during its flight over the state. However, no shuttle debris was ever recovered west of Littlefield, Texas.
NASA’s Space Flight Awareness organization sponsored a huge dinner at the Lufkin Civic Center on April 29 to celebrate the end of the search operations and to thank the local communities and agencies for their help. The scale of the event was impressive. NASA’s Ed Mango likened it to the celebration scene in the movie, The Right Stuff. Jan Amen from the Texas Forest Service reported, “Dinner was steak and chicken, green beans, rice, rolls, salad, pie, all prepared by the Diboll Country Club. Free drinks flowed freely.”
It was the kind of party that only Texans know how to throw.
Administrator Sean O’Keefe hosted the event for NASA, and Scott Wells spoke on behalf of FEMA. County judges and civic leaders from every county in East Texas were on hand. County Judge Jack Leath, Tom Maddox, Greg Cohrs, Roger and Belinda Gay, Marsha Cooper, and a host of other people represented Sabine County. Dignitaries from the various Native American Tribes and Nations attended. An astronaut sat at every table.
Astronaut Dom Gorie opened the ceremony with a heartfelt invocation that brought tears to the eyes of nearly everyone present. The Expedition Six crew sent a live video message from the International Space Station. A video about the Columbia crew followed.
O’Keefe and NASA’s Dave King, who was in charge of the recovery operation, presented plaques recognizing the nation’s appreciation for the contributions of the people at every table in the hall. The spouses of Columbia’s crew spoke of their gratitude to the people of East Texas for bringing their loved ones home again. Eileen Collins closed the ceremony on behalf of the next shuttle crew scheduled to fly in space.
It was a fitting and emotional close to a tumultuous three months. The people of East Texas had provided the nation and the world with an enduring lesson in how to handle a crisis with dignity, compassion, and competence. They met and worked side by side with astronauts, rocket scientists, engineers, technicians, and fire crews from across the country. In return, they had the satisfaction of knowing that they had gone far beyond the call of duty in the hopes of returning the American shuttle fleet to flight again.
At the end of the evening, after Jan Amen dropped off her last load of astronauts and families at their hotels in Lufkin, she wrote to a friend, “I absolutely lost it. I squalled all the way back to Cudlipp like a big fat crybaby. I’m whooped!”
[Portions of this blog post are excerpted from Bringing Columbia Home, (c) 2017 by Mike Leinbach and Jonathan Ward.]