Day of Remembrance Reflections – Part 2

I had the honor of attending the NASA Day of Remembrance ceremonies at Kennedy Space Center this morning, as a guest of Mike Leinbach. As much as I thought I was emotionally prepared for the event, I could not help being moved to tears several times during the course of the service.

During the opening acknowledgments, I was elated that Eileen Collins recognized Greg Cohrs from the US Forest Service for his tireless efforts to recover Columbia and her crew, from the day of the accident until the day recovery operations ended. Eileen said that NASA will never forget the support that Greg and the people of East Texas rendered during the recovery of Columbia.

This year’s memorial program focused on four astronauts who perished about fifty years ago: Elliot M. See, Jr., Charles A. Bassett II, Clifton C. “CC” Williams, and Michael Adams. With the exception of X-15 pilot Adams, none of them had the opportunity to make it into space.

Most touching to me was listening to the children of the fallen astronauts, who were still young when their fathers perished. They lost their fathers without having the opportunity to get to know who they really were. Charlie Bassett’s daughter Karen Stevenson was only eight years old when her father was killed. She said, “I was just beginning to realize that he was more than just my daddy: that people cared about him, depended on him, trusted him, admired him…that he was smart, studious, gregarious, warm and funny and dedicated, and maybe just a teensy bit geeky.”

Tal Ramon, the son of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died in the Columbia accident, traveled from Israel for the event. Tal has lost not only his father in 2003 but also his brother Asaf, an Israeli Air Force pilot who died in a training accident in 2009. Tal is using music to help him deal with the loss of his father and brother. He sang and played his stunningly beautiful composition “Dmut” (Courage) and played a piano solo “Victoria” (Victory). His profoundly moving music said more than words could ever convey, and it touched a very deep part of my soul.

Eileen Collins then reverently read the names of the fallen astronauts, and with that music still in our ears, it was impossible not to feel an overwhelming sadness at the loss of people who held such promise—but also to know that they died doing what they truly enjoyed.

The ceremony then moved out to the Space Mirror, where Bob Cabana (Director of Kennedy Space Center) and Therrin Protze (Chief Operating Officer of Delaware North) laid a wreath emblazoned “Forever Remembered.” The rest of us were then invited to twine the stem of a rose or carnation into the fence in front of the mirror. It was a simple and beautiful way to bring closure to the event.

Cohrs and Collins
Greg, Sandra, and Adam Cohrs speak with STS-114 commander Eileen Collins at the Space Mirror. (photo by Jonathan Ward)

Afterward, I enjoyed connecting with people I’ve met over the years during my many visits to the Space Coast—Lee Solid, Bob Sieck, Russ Lloyd, Ann Micklos, Gerry Schumann, Steve Coester, and Jean Wright, just to name a few who were there. I admire their contributions and envy their connections to the space program. Their careers have included many long days and much thankless effort, but all of it has been important work. We couldn’t be exploring the universe without people like them.

VAB
Visiting the VAB always makes my heart race and my spirit soar! (Photo by Jonathan Ward)

Greg Cohrs, his wife Sandra and his son Adam, and my wife Jane and I then met up with Mike Ciannilli, director of KSC’s Columbia Research and Preservation Office. Mike took us up to the Columbia Room on the 16th floor of the Vehicle Assembly Building. I had the honor of visiting the room in June 2015 when I first began working on the book. However, Greg and his family had not seen it before. The room is currently in transition. Mike has been working to upgrade the room to better fit its intended purpose—as a learning laboratory rather than merely a warehouse of Columbia‘s debris.

Being in the room with Greg and his family was a powerful experience. Greg and Sandra had found pieces of Columbia‘s debris on their property in Hemphill after the accident. Greg of course managed the search operations for Columbia‘s crew in Sabine County, Texas, and then helped manage the debris recovery operations in East Texas after that. Adam had taken two days off from college a week after the accident to help search for the crew. And Mike Ciannilli had flown as a spotter on helicopters out of Palestine, Texas during the debris recovery. Again, I hold these people with utmost admiration for what they did in very tough times.

Reflections on NASA’s Day of Remembrance

Mike and Jonathan share their thoughts on NASA’s Day of Remembrance, 2018

by Mike Leinbach and Jonathan Ward

420415main_astromemfilephotoOn January 25, NASA and our extended NASA Family will pause to remember the astronauts who lost their lives in service to our country.

The Day of Remembrance was instituted by then-Administrator Sean O’Keefe in 2004. He decreed that the last Thursday in January would be set aside to remember the astronauts who gave their lives in the line of duty.

This year will mark the 51st anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, 32 years since the Challenger accident, and the 15th anniversary of the loss of Columbia in East Texas. All three tragedies occurred within a one-week period in late January and early February, hence the chosen date to hold the Day of Remembrance.

NASA employees and the space community will gather in various places across the country, most near the NASA centers, with common feelings of reverence, respect, and appreciation. We will honor all 24 fallen heroes with speeches and other such memorials—some formal, some less so, but all with the dignity one would expect, and deserved by those we celebrate.

It’s a time to think and thank…

And so it will be again this year. For those of us on the Space Coast, the ceremony is always held at the Space Mirror at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Dedicated in 1991 by Vice President Quayle, the black granite wall, 50 feet wide by 42 feet high, carries the names of the 24 astronauts who died in the line of duty. Their names are laser-cut through the 2.5 inch thick panels for all time and for all to know.

The Astronauts Memorial Foundation administers the memorial among its other very worthy initiatives including educating America’s youth through innovative educational technology programs. I was recently asked to serve on the Board of the Foundation, a call for which I feel deeply honored.

This year’s memorial event starts at 10:00 am Eastern Time, if you’re in the area and would like to attend. It begins in the Center for Education building adjacent to the Rocket Garden. The public is welcome and encouraged to attend.

We hope you will pause and thank our lost astronauts for their sacrifices, no matter your location or connection with them.

On a personal note, these ceremonies invariably leave me with the two dominant feelings I believe most other people experience:

  1. I admire the astronauts and their families, and
  2. I hope the number of fallen comrades stops at 24.

Fairly simplistic I know.

The important thing is, how does #1 manifest itself to make sure #2 happens? That’s better left as the subject for one or more follow-on posts, as it gets complicated pretty fast. It gets into some very fundamental questions about exploration, safety, experience, value, and values.

For now I choose to simply embrace #1 and #2, and remember my friends privately.

— Mike

— — — — — — —

On the morning of Saturday, January 28, 1967 I was a 10-year-old boy riding with my family in our van in Naha, Okinawa. I vividly remember hearing on Armed Forces Radio that the crew of Apollo 1 had just perished in a fire. My father pulled over to the side of the road. My sisters and I went silent. None of us could believe it. The loss of my astronaut heroes devastated me every bit as powerfully as the assassination of President Kennedy just three years earlier. I worried that our space program had just ended. I was too young to appreciate the resolve of the country and NASA to continue moving forward despite the horrible loss.

Exactly nineteen years later, I walked by a conference room at work where someone had turned on a TV. No one spoke. I saw smoke and vapor trails and was confused about what was going on. What seemed like an eternity passed, as I watched the replays of the fireball and vapor cloud and the solid rocket boosters careening in the sky. Apollo 1 had been an accident on the ground, but Challenger was the first time NASA had lost a crew in flight.

And we lost another seven brave souls in flight on February 1, 2003 when Columbia disintegrated over Texas. The loss of Columbia and her crew affected me perhaps even more deeply than Challenger, as the advent of the Internet and NASA’s public outreach had enabled me to follow the crew’s training and mission for months. This was a crew who I felt that I knew, even though I had never met any of them.

I started attending Spacefests and Astronaut Scholarship Foundation events in 2009. I’ve spent much of the past three years researching the Columbia accident, and now I know dozens of astronauts and other people who had worked on the Space Shuttle Program. I venerated the astronauts as a kid, and continued to put them on pedestals as an adult. But now I realize that I had never fully wrapped my head around the fact that the people who climb into space vehicles are real people with real families. True, they’re exceptionally competent and smart and brave and tough.

But they’re also really nice people with parents and husbands and wives and sons and daughters who care about them and worry about them. I never truly knew what it was like to worry about someone until I became an Army dad, and my son went on his first—and second—and third—deployment to a war zone. That’s when you begin to understand the real nature of sacrifice in the line of duty.

Our astronauts put their lives on the line every day to help make our world a better place. They have to balance the need to explore with the toll that it takes on their families.

I’m thankful that Sean O’Keefe instituted the NASA Day of Remembrance as an annual milestone that provides us the opportunity to pause and reflect on the meaning of heroism—the willingness to put aside one’s personal concerns in order to serve the greater good.

Let us be grateful to those brave people and their families for their service to our country and to humanity.

— Jonathan

Book Tour Schedule

“Bringing Columbia Home” was officially released today! Demand has been unexpectedly high. Our publisher has already ordered a second printing!

Mike and I have several busy weeks ahead of us as we commemorate the crew of STS-107  and celebrate the accomplishments of the 25,000 Americans who worked to recover Columbia.

Here’s where we’ll be in the coming weeks. Please come by and say hi if you’re nearby!

Thursday, January 25: NASA Day of Remembrance. Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Program begins in the education center at 10:00 and moves to the Space Mirror at 11:00.

Friday, January 26: NASA Apollo-Challenger-Columbia Lessons Learned Program panel, “Columbia: Lessons and Legends of Recovery.” Kennedy Space Center Training Auditorium, 1:00-3:00. Open to KSC-badged personnel only.

Saturday, January 27: Wreath-laying, Sand Point Park, Titusville, 10:00 a.m. – 11:00. Book signing afterward at the American Space Museum, 308 Pine St, Titusville. We will have a limited number of books for purchase (onsite sales benefit the museum). Bring a book of your own and we will sign it free of charge. Signed and personalized book plates will also be available.

Monday, January 29: Live interview with Brian Freeman on “True Story” (http://tobtr.com/10519951) at 8:30 p.m. EST.

Wednesday, January 31: Panel discussion at Johnson Space Center with Mike and Wayne Hale, 8:00 a.m. – 10:30 a.m. CST. Open to JSC-badged personnel only. Book signing immediately afterward.

Thursday, February 1: Memorial service at 7:45 a.m. CST, followed by book signings and discussions at the Remembering Columbia Museum, 375 Sabine St., Hemphill, Texas.

Saturday, February 3: Presentation to Space Exploration Educators Conference, Space Center Theater, JSC, 3:30 – 4:30 p.m. Book signing at the Space Center Houston retail store immediately afterward.

Sunday, February 11: Book signing at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway, Chantilly, Virginia. 12:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. EST.

Monday, February 12: “What’s New in Aerospace” program, National Air & Space Museum DC building (Independence Ave. at 6th St. SW, Washington DC) in the  ‘Moving Beyond Earth’ gallery, 2:00-2:30 CST. Details at https://airandspace.si.edu/events/story-behind-space-shuttle-columbia-recovery-mission. Live webcast.

Thursday, February 15: Book signing and discussion at The Great Outdoors, Titusville, Florida, 3:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. EST. (Mike only)

Discussing Columbia at the George W. Bush Presidential Center

Mike and I were privileged to be invited to speak at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas on January 16. Our host was Kevin Sullivan, former communications assistant to President Bush. Sean O’Keefe, NASA’s Administrator during the Columbia accident, sponsored the event. Also on hand were Bill Readdy (three-time space shuttle astronaut and former associate administrator at NASA) and Ron Castleman (regional director of FEMA).

The talk coincided with the 15th anniversary of the launch of Columbia on her final mission. Despite the bitter cold, the reading room was packed! Mike and I were very sorry that our friends from East Texas were unable to attend the event because of the icy roads. We did our best to sing their praises.

Sean
Sean O’Keefe (right) sets the stage for the discussion

Sean kicked off the discussion by setting the context for the security concerns for the mission—only 16 months after 9/11 and with Israel’s first astronaut on board. He also provided fascinating insights into President and Mrs. Bush’s concerns and care for the families of Columbia’s crew after the accident.

Mike described the incredibly empty feeling he experienced when he stood at the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center on February 1, 2003 and realized that Columbia hadn’t shown up, and no one knew where the shuttle was or what had happened to it—only grasping that something must have gone horribly wrong.

Responding to a question from the audience, Mike outlined the challenges that launching a rescue mission would have entailed, had NASA known that Columbia was doomed. Sean vigorously affirmed that NASA would have launched a rescue mission had there been any indication that one was needed. Addressing the challenges of flying such a dangerous mission, Bill Readdy said, “There would have been a line of volunteers as long as the roster of the astronaut office to fly that mission.”

Panel
Discussing the good people of East Texas. (From left: Kevin Sullivan, Sean O’Keefe, Mike Leinbach, Jonathan Ward)

Mike and I also discussed the incredible support that the people of East Texas provided in responding to the immediate aftermath of the accident. We also discussed the seamless way that FEMA, NASA, and EPA led the federal response in the ensuing days.

The hour allotted for the discussion flew by!

And the fifty copies of the book that Mike and I had signed before the talk sold out within minutes. (Authors are always happy to see that happen!)

After the panel
A quick photo op after the discussion. From left: Bill Readdy, Sean O’Keefe, Ron Castleman, Mike, and Jonathan

Aerospace America Article

In mid-November, I was surprised to get an email from astronaut Thomas Jones, a veteran of four Space Shuttle missions, requesting an interview. It was a surprise because I’m usually the one asking to interview astronauts, not the other way around! Tom attended the presentation that Mike and I gave at the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation earlier in the month, and it inspired him to write an article for Aerospace America, a journal published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

On November 17, 2017 Mike Leinbach and I met in Cocoa Beach with Tom, along with Mike Ciannilli, who directs NASA’s Apollo Challenger Columbia Lessons Learned Program. I was fascinated to hear Tom, Mike, and “Chach” discuss from their unique perspectives their thoughts about the Columbia accident, the recovery and reconstruction of the shuttle afterward, and the lessons Columbia holds for future manned space missions, both on NASA spacecraft and on commercial crew vehicles.

After the intense conversation, we adjourned to an Irish pub to swap happier stories!

with Tom Jones
Mike Ciannilli, Tom Jones, Jonathan Ward, Charlotte Leinbach, and Mike Leinbach after an intense conversation! (Jonathan Ward photo)

Below is the link to the article that Tom wrote. I think you’ll agree that it’s a fantastic synopsis of the Columbia story and the need to reinforce the safety culture at NASA going forward.

“Their Mission Became Our Mission,” Aerospace America, January 2018

“Texas Journey” Magazine Interview

This interview with Mike and me appears in the January/February 2018 issue of “Texas Journey” Magazine, the publication of the Texas AAA. It encourages people to consider a visit to the Remembering Columbia Museum in Hemphill, Texas. Mike and I will be speaking there on February 1, 2018, the 15th anniversary of the Columbia accident.

Texas Journey article Jan:Feb 2018

Texas Journey article AAA Dec 2017 0118_TEX_GoingPlaces

A Dream Realized!

This is a follow-up to our post from July 22, 2017 (“Why Is the Book Taking So Long?“) in which we discussed how impatient we were all feeling about seeing the book in print.

The great new is: the book has been printed! We received the first shipment yesterday. It’s being shipped to booksellers this week, and it will be on the shelves in early January.

I took advantage of this happy event to recap what it took to bring this book to you. It’s just a brief snapshot of some of the milestones and hurdles that Mike and I as authors went through to put together a non-fiction book. (And many of my author friends have remarked about how FAST this book came about.) The milestones don’t take into account  the hundreds of emails, scheduling the interviews, checking facts, handling administrative issues, etc.

Oh yes, and sitting at the computer to try to write more than 1,000 words per day for a three-month period at the end of last year. This book has literally been my life for the past 981 days.

Here are some of the stats and milestones:

  • Book idea first discussed: April 9, 2015, 12:40 pm
  • First book scoping meeting: April 13, 2015, 2:00 pm
  • First interview: Pam Melroy, April 28, 2015, 5:00 pm
  • First draft chapter (“Silence and Shock”) completed: September 13, 2015
  • First inquiries to potential literary agents: November 22, 2015
  • Literary agent selected: March 31, 2016
  • Contract signed with Skyhorse Publishing: August 25, 2016
  • Final phone interview: Dan Sauerwein, October 25, 2016, 6:30 pm
  • First draft of all chapters completed: January 8, 2017
  • Second draft completed: January 18, 2017
  • Rewrite begun to incorporate reviewer comments: February 3, 2017
  • Manuscript submitted to publisher: March 14, 2017
  • Advance Reader Copy received: August 22, 2017
  • Last reviewer comments incorporated (Adm. Hal Gehman): September 5, 2017
  • Final proof approved: November 17, 2017
  • First print run: December 8, 2017
  • Mike opens first carton of printed books: December 15, 2017, 1:00 pm
  • Number of phone, in-person, and group interviews conducted: 99
  • Number of people interviewed: 82
  • Number of astronauts interviewed: 15
  • Hours of interviews conducted: more than 150
  • Number of interview words transcribed: 650,343
  • Primary source documents researched: more than 200

Bookends

Mike and I set off on this journey on April 9, 2015 at 12:40 pm at Crackerjacks in Titusville, Florida. Here’s a photo taken right after Mike brought up the idea of a book about his experiences in the Columbia recovery and reconstruction.

mike-and-jonathan

And here’s Mike opening the first carton of printed books on December 15, 2017 at 1:00 pm. If you’re keeping track, that’s 2 years, 8 months, 6 days, and 20 minutes later.

There aren’t words to convey how incredibly powerful this experience has been for me as an author. What an honor it has been to sit with people as they relived their experiences in what most of them called the most important thing they had ever done. Each person to whom I talked took a hero’s journey that ultimately resulted in contemplating his or her purpose on this planet. You don’t get any more real than that. There weren’t any casual spectators in this story. Everyone’s life was changed by the events of 2003 and their aftermath.

My life was forever changed by researching and writing this book. I hope your life will be changed after you read the story.

Mike and I can’t wait to hear how readers will respond to the book. We encourage you to send us your comments and if you feel so moved, to write a short review on our book page on amazon.com. You can also look for us on Goodreads.

Mike and Jonathan at the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation “2017 Space Rendezvous”

Mike and I were invited to speak at the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation’s “Space Rendezvous” in Cocoa Beach, Florida in November this year. Our presentation was entitled “Columbia Recovery and Reconstruction: An American Story of Courage, Compassion, and Commitment.” It was the first time Mike and I had jointly given a talk, and what an audience it was—ASF board members, at least a dozen astronauts, former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, people who had worked on the Space Shuttle Program, and dozens of “civilians” for whom the space program forms an important part of their lives. Many of those present had flown on Columbia, supported her on the ground, or had been part of the search and recovery effort.

Mike Leinbach at Columbia presentation - Steve Torres photoMike opened with an overview of Columbia’s STS-107 mission and the aftermath of the accident. He recounted his experiences on Landing Day, as he awaited Columbia‘s return, and the horrible feeling of profound emptiness he experienced when he realized Columbia was lost.

Jonathan Ward at Columbia presentation - Steve Torres photoJonathan followed with a discussion of what the people in East Texas were experiencing at that same moment when Columbia‘s debris created a continuous cacophony of sonic booms and the wreckage began impacting the ground. Mike and Jonathan then talked about the mobilization efforts that began immediately after the accident, both at NASA and at the local level in Texas, and the overwhelming success of the recovery forces who worked for three months to find Columbia‘s debris in East Texas.

Jean Wright asks question at Leinbach-Ward talk - Steve Torres photo
Jean Wright, who worked as a seamstress on Columbia’s thermal protection blankets, shares a memory of Columbia.

Mike described his experience in leading the reconstruction of Columbia at Kennedy Space Center. He also talked with pride about preservation of Columbia‘s debris and the ensuing lessons-learned program that has turned Columbia into a living laboratory about the effects of uncontrolled hypersonic reentry.

Mike Griffin at Leinbach-Ward talk - Steve Torres photo
Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin talks about the return to flight effort. Partially obscured behind Griffin is astronaut Jim Wetherbee, who led the search for Columbia’s crew.

Throughout the presentation, Jonathan and Mike invited audience members to share their experiences. Astronaut Jim Wetherbee discussed his challenges in leading the daunting task of recovering the crew’s remains. Administrator Griffin spoke about correcting the issues and flaws uncovered by the Investigation Board and returning the shuttle to flight.

Mike Leinbach Hugh Harris - Steve Torres photo
Former KSC Public Affairs Director Hugh Harris expresses his thoughts after reading an advance copy of “Bringing Columbia Home.”

The ASF provided a Facebook Live stream of the talk, which can be found here. (If this link does not work, please visit the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation page on Facebook, scroll down to “videos,” and look for the untitled video dated November 3.)

Charlotte Leinbach Mike Leinbach Carol Tyler Jonathan Ward ASF Banquet - Steve Torres photo
Charlotte Leinbach (left), Mike, and Jonathan share a relaxing moment with ASF Board Member Carol Tyler on November 4.

 

The Book Is Going to Press December 8!

This is just a quick note to let everyone know that “Bringing Columbia Home” is going to press tomorrow!

Mike and I began collaborating on this book in April 2015. On one hand, it feels like ages since we started this project. On the other hand, the time has flown by. We’ve met so many amazing folks along the way and heard so many incredible stories about how Columbia touched people’s lives. I can’t express enough how profoundly rewarding it has been to help bring the story of Columbia’s heroes to the attention of the broader public.

Our publisher tells us that the book will be shipped to stores in late December. Despite the official release date of January 23, the book should start appearing on shelves in early January.

Please be sure to check the Upcoming Events page of this website, where Mike and I will maintain our schedule of talks, book signings, and other public appearances.

Thank you again for your interest and support along the way — and stay tuned!

Meeting the Heroes of Deep East Texas

Two years ago this week, I was in Hemphill, Texas to conduct interviews for “Bringing Columbia Home.” Belinda Gay and Marsha Cooper of Hemphill’s Patricia Huffman Smith “Remembering Columbia” Museum had graciously provided space in the museum to conduct the interviews, and had arranged for several dozen people to meet with me.

I flew into Houston, rented a car, and then made the two-hour drive to Hemphill. The flatlands and concrete jungle of the Houston area gradually gave way to a more scenic, wooded environment. (I made sure to stop for a Whataburger on the way north!) By the time I turned off at Lufkin and started heading east, I was now following in the path of the debris from Columbia as it broke apart in the morning sky on February 1, 2003. I tried hard to imagine what it was like on that chilly, foggy morning when the silence was pierced by the thunder of the reentry of the debris, and as thousands of pieces came to earth over a 250-mile-long path. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it. The forest grew thicker the farther east I drove, and I passed along the Sam Rayburn Reservoir before arriving in Sabine County and Hemphill.

IMG_1156I made the mistake of turning off my cell phone when I got out of the car to look around town. I had no cell service when I tried to power it back up again—and I was relying on it to show me the way to my motel! Fortunately, I managed to find my way there. My lodging for the night was in a beautiful set of cottages overlooking the Toledo Bend Reservoir. (The lack of cell service was even more of an issue for the NASA search teams back in 2003, to the extent that Verizon brought in temporary cell towers so that the searchers could communicate with each other and their search coordinators.)

Hamilton and Maddox
Doug Hamilton (left) and Tom Maddox

From the very first interview the next morning, I was overwhelmed with the graciousness and goodness of these people. They were all eager to share their stories of a pivotal time in their lives and in the life of their community. My first interviews were with Doug Hamilton, a law enforcement officer from the US Forest Service, and Sheriff Tom Maddox of Sabine County. They were among the first responders on the scene when debris from Columbia was positively identified—and the remains of the first of Columbia‘s crew were discovered.

 

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Hemphill’s VFW hall

Later that morning I interviewed “Squeaky” and Byron Starr, the town’s funeral directors, who played key roles in recovering the remains of Columbia‘s crew with dignity and discretion. I also talked with Roger Gay, the commander of the town’s VFW at the time of the accident. The VFW hall would become the focal point of activity for the thousands of searchers who descended on Hemphill for the recovery of the ship and her crew.

The afternoon was reserved for speaking with some of the townspeople who volunteered to do anything they could to help in the recovery. Dwight Riley was 65 years old in 2003, but he didn’t let his age interfere with searching the woods. He recalled finding a “Lift-the-Dot” type of snap lying on the ground in the woods and wondering, “Where did that come from? Was it on a harness, or a wall, or a uniform? How did that come from space to land here?” As he reflected on the events of that February, he broke into tears, saying that it was the most rewarding thing he’d ever done in his life.

Mrs. Hivie McCowan, now 90 years old, told about hearing the horrible noise on that fateful morning. She recalled that the local authorities asked everyone to search their property for pieces of the shuttle, but she was afraid that she might encounter remains of the crew. She found a large piece of metal frame from Columbia in her back yard. She was one of the many people who volunteered to serve food to searchers at the VFW Hall. This quote from her interview illustrates what the experience was like for so many people:

I handled more tea than I’ll ever handle in my lifetime. And the people that I served, you wouldn’t want anybody to be any nicer. The guys that come through, they seemed so nice and mannerly. I never heard a foul word or nothing come out of all them men’s mouth that come through. And you know, usually somebody’ll act up. But they didn’t. And I was serving tea. They had sweet tea and they had, you know, tea without sugar, unsweetened. So I got to the place to let ’em know what I was serving. I’d just, I’d say “Sweet tea,” and they’d come to me. I’d say, “Sweet tea,”–and the other was serving other tea–I’d say, “Sweet tea? Sweet tea?” I said “Sweet tea” so long, until they named me ‘Sweet Tea.’ Dr., let me see, what was his name–. Dr. Somebody out of Beaumont, I forget his name. He called me Sweet Tea first, and then the rest of ’em went to calling me Sweet Tea, and I was just serving tea. I helped serve food, too. It was awesome.

The next two days of interviews included other participants in the search, both officials and volunteers. Jamie Sowell of the US Forest Service spoke about his organizing and leading search teams into the woods during the first two weeks of February. School teacher Sunny Whittington described how she was inspired to have her elementary school class make hundreds of sandwiches to feed the searchers, each lunch containing a handwritten note of encouragement from one of the children. Another of the searchers I spoke to that week recalled the note in his lunch bag, and he broke into tears telling me about how deeply meaningful that gesture was to him in such a difficult time.

IMG_6054
Stakes mark a shallow depression still remaining from where Columbia‘s “nose cone” crashed through the trees and impacted the ground outside Hemphill. Belinda Gay and Marsha Cooper have been actively advocating to turn this site into a memorial park. (Jonathan Ward photo)

Felix Holmes of the US Forest Service was involved in the recovery of Columbia‘s nose cap, which was found in the woods outside Hemphill. He bulldozed a clearing so that a helicopter could attempt to airlift the structure out of the woods. When high winds thwarted the airlift, he bulldozed a path for a four-wheeler and trailer to get back to the site. Holmes was also instrumental in creating a path in Ayish Bayou for rescuers to reach the site of the fatal search helicopter crash in March 2003.

Greg Cohrs Olen Bean
Greg Cohrs (left) of the US Forest Service and Olen Bean of the Texas Forest Service.

Greg Cohrs of the US Forest Service was pressed into service on the morning of February 1, 2003 to try to bring order out of the chaos of the initial response to the accident. Cohrs went on to coordinate the search operations in Sabine County in the first two weeks of February, during the search for the crew’s remains. He also continued to be involved throughout the debris recovery effort that lasted until late April. He kept a detailed journal of his day-by-day activities during that period. He graciously shared that with us, and he became a key consultant—and good friend—to Mike Leinbach and me as we put the book together. We believe that Greg’s accounts of the daily struggles and the highs and lows of the search operations truly make “Bringing Columbia Home” a gripping account of the human drama of that intense period. We’ll forever be indebted to Greg for his contributions.

IMG_6028
Marie Nelson and me

Miss Marie “Little Granny” Nelson was overwhelming in her kindness toward me. She brought me a chocolate cake one day, banana pudding another day, and gave me a blue sequined cowboy hat and Texas flag shirt another day. She was yet another of the volunteers who helped make life easier for the searchers. She recalled talking to National Guardsmen who were bivouacked in the gym of Hemphill’s high school. One of the guard asked her, “Ma’am, where are we?” She went to the library and photocopied maps of the area to help these people get their bearings relative to the rest of Texas.

Mike Alexander was another volunteer searcher. He recalled the emotions of the search effort, and also talked about how the town responded. One of the ways that townspeople helped was to open their homes to other volunteers who had no place to stay during the search, as there are few fish camps or motels in the area. He recalled talking to one man on his crew, Dan Sauerwein, who worked at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at Johnson Space Center. Sauerwein had driven up from JSC to help with the search and was sleeping in his car. Alexander told him, “You’re staying at my house from now on.”

One of the great coincidences that made putting this book together so powerful for me is that Dan Sauerwein later contacted me via Facebook. He recalled Alexander’s generosity but had lost touch with him over the years. I was able to put the two of them back in contact with each other.

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Belinda Gay, Jonathan, and Marsha Cooper.

Throughout this overwhelming period of interviews, Marsha Cooper and Belinda Gay kept me organized and also filled in a lot of details. They were of course both deeply involved in the recovery. Belinda solicited the food donations and coordinated the volunteers who served somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 meals at the VFW during February 2003. Marsha was in the first search teams to go into the woods after the accident to look for Columbia‘s crew, and she coordinated much of the interface between the media and the US Forest Service during the recovery operations.

Gay and Cooper were also the driving force behind establishing the Columbia museum in Hemphill—an incredible test of perseverance in overcoming bureaucracy and people who wished simply to forget that the accident ever happened. Their efforts will, I believe, ultimately be as important in preserving the legacy of Columbia as those of the NASA officials who preserved Columbia‘s debris for future study.

One afternoon, we drove out to see where some of the searches had taken place. We visited the “nose cone” site, where Columbia‘s reinforced carbon-carbon nose cap and its supporting structure came to earth. Gay and Cooper have been actively trying since 2003 to turn this into a National Memorial to commemorate Columbia and the deeds of the people of East Texas in recovering the ship and her crew. They even solicited design proposals from architecture students at Texas A&M University.

Columbia crew resting placeWe also stopped by the site where the first of Columbia‘s crew were recovered on the morning of the accident. The landowner erected a simple cross saying “American Hero” shortly after the accident. It is a stark and sobering reminder of the human cost of space exploration.

My short visit to Hemphill was one of the most moving experiences in my life. I left there forever changed—completely overwhelmed by what everyday people can do when suddenly thrown into responding to an extraordinary event. I hope that “Bringing Columbia Home” will pay some small measure of homage to these incredible people who are truly American heroes.

The 4th quarter 2017 issue of “Texas Roadways” magazine will be doing a feature story on Hemphill and the Remembering Columbia Museum.