At the National Air and Space Museum

Mike and I were invited to speak at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) on February 12. While I always feel honored to speak to groups, this venue held a special place in my heart. I worked as a volunteer tour guide at the NASM back in the summers of 1971 and 1972, while I was a student in high school. I can’t tell you how excited I was to be back again in the capacity of a subject matter expert!

We began our Washington, DC weekend with a signing at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, on Sunday, February 11. The Udvar-Hazy Center’s vast hangar holds planes and space vehicles that are too large to display in a more traditional museum. Here you’ll find everything from a World War I “Spad” to the B-29 Enola Gay that dropped the Hiroshima bomb to a Concorde SST to an SR-71 to the space shuttle Discovery!

Mike and I walked around Discovery before our book signing. Mike remarked that the last time he stood under Discovery, she was still radiating heat from re-entry. That was after the conclusion of the STS-133 mission on March 9, 2011.

I was fascinated to hear Mike point out several things that I might not have otherwise noticed. For example, take a look at the discolored streaks marked by the arrows in the photo below. Those give you an indication of the angle of attack—how steeply “nose-up” the space shuttle flies when it is re-entering the atmosphere.

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Mike and me with Discovery, February 11, 2018. (Jonathan Ward photo)

Mike also pointed out to me some of the newer, high-density “FRCI” insulation tiles on various spots along the orbiter. These newer-technology tiles replaced some tiles along the orbiter’s belly and under its wings. You can see some of them in the photo above, as they are darker black than the older tiles.

I never cease to be amazed at how large a vehcile the space shuttle orbiter was—and Mike points out that it was the smallest part of the shuttle “stack” at launch.

It’s doubly hard to imagine that a one-pound piece of foam could bring down such a mighty ship, as it did with Columbia.

As a longtime resident of Northern Virginia, before I moved to North Carolina seven years ago, I really enjoyed seeing many friends of mine who came by to say hi at the museum. My son and daughter also brought their families to share the day with me. My middle granddaughter Samantha wore her astronaut garb and she fit right in!

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My family! My wife Jane and me; granddaughters Molly (pink coat), astronaut Samantha, and baby Charlotte; my daughter Rosey (dark coat) and her husband Jason; and my son Ken (blue shirt) and his wife Valerie. And Mike off in the corner, hopelessly outnumbered.

That night, we met for dinner with former shuttle commander Pam Melroy and Robert Hanley of NASA. Pam was in charge of the Columbia crew module reconstruction effort back in 2003, and she was instrumental in writing the crew survivability report that was key to several important equipment redesigns for future crewed spacecraft. Robert was a member of the Vehicle Integration Test Team in 2003, and he also played a very important role in the crew module reconstruction. Both Pam and Robert were key contributors for Bringing Columbia Home, and although I’d spoken with them extensively on the phone, I’d never met them in person.

Astronauts always have tons of wonderful stories to relate! I was thrilled to hear Pam give us some peaks behind the scenes of what it was like to work as a “Cape Crusader” to prepare shuttles for other crews, as well as her own experiences during missions. For example, she said that you get used to making very small and very slow movements when you’re in zero-G; she said you could always tell who the rookie astronauts were because they were covered with bruises after the first day or two. But it was critical for the shuttle’s commander and pilot to prepare for the larger, more forceful actions that would be needed to control the shuttle during reentry. So the pilots had a hand controller hooked to a laptop that enabled them to simulate the actual hand and arm motions required for reentry and landing beginning a day before the end of the mission. Pam said she really needed that reminder, because she blew the first simulated landing!

Pam also mentioned that she always had a particularly hard time adjusting from zero-G back to Earth’s gravity. It was doubly hard for her when she had to fly the shuttle back home as commander when “my gyros were pegged” and she felt physically awful from the transition back to gravity.

Robert had been the personal interface between Columbia‘s crew and the vehicle team on the ground at Kennedy. He shared some wonderful reminiscences—touching and funny—of his time with the crew of STS-107.

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Not looking too bad, considering we had just spent 3-1/2 hours eating, drinking, and talking at Maggiano’s! Mike, “Pambo,” Robert, and me. 

Monday, February 12 was our day at the NASM’s main building on Independence Avenue in Washington, DC. We were hosted by Dr. Valerie Neal, chair of the Smithsonian’s Space History Department and curator of the NASM’s space artifacts. Mike taped a brief segment with Marty Kelsey for the Smithsonian’s STEM-in-30 program, talking about how the slidewire escape system worked at the launch pad. Mike also taped a short segment for middle school students about his educational and career path and what he liked about his job.

Then it was time for the “What’s New in Aerospace?” program, hosted by Dr. Neal. I can’t describe for you how amazing it felt to be in that wonderful space, with my family in the front row of the audience—and my guidance counselor from high school sitting right behind them! I hadn’t seen her in person for 35 years, but we have kept in touch since 1974. She was instrumental in helping me sort out my educational path when I was a confused teenager, and even after I went off to college. It was such an honor to have her there to share the culmination of my life’s work (so far).

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Mike flashes a “thumbs up” to a colleague just before we go live.

I can’t believe how fast the program time flew by. Dr. Neal’s easygoing demeanor made this feel much more like a conversation with a friend than a presentation to a worldwide audience. It seemed like we were just scratching the surface of our stories about the recovery effort, and suddenly we saw the PA holding up a sign that it was 2:28 pm, meaning the show was only supposed to go another two minutes longer! There was so much more we wanted to talk about, but no time in which to do it.

Afterward, we learned that over 3,600 people had watched the program on Facebook Live! And the recording of the show is now posted here for your viewing pleasure.

I should also point out that the Smithsonian asked us to write a blog post for their website about the Columbia accident and its aftermath, and you can find it at this link.

We signed books at the NASM gift shop afterward. It’s always a pleasure to sign books for people who are interested in learning more about the story, and it’s always interesting to hear what parts of the book people found most absorbing. It’s sometimes difficult for authors to judge how their book will resonate with people, especially in a book like this that has technical aspects but also deeply emotional moments. As Mike says about the reconstruction, “If you can separate out the emotions, it was a fascinating engineering exercise…but you can’t separate out the emotions.”

 

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After the signing, we met up with former Shuttle Test Director Al Sofge and his wife Suzanne, a retired director from NOAA. Mike, his wife Charlotte, and Al and Suzanne shared a lot of laughs about the life of a test director during the shuttle program. Mike noted that Al was notorious for walking so briskly through the hallways that he created a gust of wind when he strode by. People gave the strength of that wind gust the unit of measure “1 Al.” If he was in a hurry for something particularly important, he might create a gust of 1.2 Al or even 1.4 Al! We also talked about the recent SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch and possible paths that NASA and the commercial crew companies might take.

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Charlotte and Mike Leinbach, and Suzanne and Al Sofge (Jonathan Ward photo)

All too quickly, our time in DC was over. We said our goodbyes at our hotel in Virginia this morning, and laughed when we said—seriously—”See you tomorrow in Florida!” We have two more signings on Thursday, February 15 in the KSC area.

Stay tuned!

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Future astronaut Samantha. What will she be flying in 20 years? (Ken Ward photo)

Hemphill, on the Fifteenth Anniversary

I’m at a loss to describe what an incredibly powerful day we had in Hemphill, Texas, on this the fifteenth anniversary of the Columbia accident.

We spent Wednesday night at the Fin and Feather Resort on the Toledo Bend Reservoir six miles south of Hemphill. (This was the base for Navy salvage operations during the Columbia recovery.) The Sabine County Memorial Committee threw a nice Texas-style party for us in the resort’s convention center that evening.

Thursday morning began at a 7:45 service at Hemphill’s First Baptist Church. The service included a remembrance of the crew of STS-107 and the two men who perished during the recovery effort. Following that were tributes to the people of East Texas delivered by NASA officials: Gerry Schumann, who worked for four months in the recovery in Hemphill; Sean O’Keefe, former Administrator of NASA; Mike Leinbach, former Shuttle Launch Director; Ellen Ochoa, Director of Johnson Space Center; and Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations. All reiterated the undying gratitude that NASA feels to the people of Texas—and thousands of Americans from across the country—who labored so selflessly to find Columbia’s crew and recover the evidence that enabled NASA to return the space shuttle fleet to flight.

Mike at serviceMike described his impressions on first seeing the landscape on our drive into the area yesterday. He said it had been hard for him to picture the density of the pine forests and the distances that the searchers had to cover during the recovery. He left it simply, “When I was working with the debris in the reconstruction hangar, I just did not appreciate what people had to go through to get it to us.”

Bill Gerstenmaier let the people of Hemphill know that, “whenever you step outside before sunrise or after sunset and see the International Space Station fly overhead, you should know that bright star is there because of what you did.”

The spouses of four of Columbia’s crew were on hand during the service: Evelyn Husband Thompson, widow of commander Rick Husband; Sandy Anderson, widow of mission specialist Michael Anderson; Jean-Pierre “J. P.” Harrison, husband of Kalpana “KC” Chawla; and Jonathan Clark, husband of mission specialist Laurel Clark. I had the honor of meeting and talking with all four of them after the service. They all asked Mike and me to sign copies of the book for them, and J.P. also took a copy of the book for Lani McCool.

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After the memorial service: From left, Marsha Cooper, Jon Clark, Belinda Gay, Evelyn Husband Thompson, Sean O’Keefe, Jean-Pierre Harrison, and Sandy Anderson. (photo courtesy Marsha Cooper)

We drove over to the museum, uncertain whether there would be any books there for us to sign! A delay in the second printing led to a late shipment of the books from the distributor. Belinda Gay rode herd on our publisher all week. As of the evening of January 31, it appeared that the shipment had not left the distribution center. Just before the memorial service started, Belinda told me that she had heard that one box of books had left Shreveport bound for Nacogdoches overnight. She had dispatched someone to intercept the shipment when it arrived at Nacogdoches at 9 a.m. and to drive the box directly to the museum. It was only going to be 24 books, but combined with the 10 books our agent brought us in Houston on Wednesday, it would be better than nothing.

For some reason, I was too stupid or too trusting or too much of a Pollyanna to believe that there would ever be a problem with getting the books to Hemphill on the day of the anniversary. I just couldn’t let that possibility enter my mind. I just smiled and waited.

Just as Mike and I arrived at the museum, the driver arrived with the box! The museum was already mobbed with people waiting for us to sign the books they had brought with them from home. Mike and I were so overwhelmed that we failed to notice the congratulatory cake that the museum staff had prepared for us. (Apologies, everyone!)

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We started signing at 10:00 and kept going for two hours without a pause. Some people brought with them six or more copies of the book that they had purchased from Amazon for family and friends. Many people had books signed for their children and grandchildren. All were genuinely thrilled that we had chosen to tell the story of the miraculous deeds of the people in this corner of the world. And they were justifiably proud of their contributions to the recovery. And I enjoyed seeing that many of them had signed each other’s books, too. What a fantastic way to connect!

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With Jan Amen, whose photos were so important to telling the story in our book

It was a joy to meet these wonderful folks, shake their hands, have our picture taken with them, and hear their stories of how the Columbia accident affected them.

As Mike and I kept signing books, we wondered where they were all coming from! It turned out that the other three boxes of books that Belinda ordered showed up unexpectedly. The museum now had ninety books for sale. Everyone who wanted a book got one. And the museum made a lot of money from the sales. It felt like the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

As Belinda and Marsha say, “It’s a God thing.”

I also believe it is due to the hard work Belinda put into tracking down those shipments, and the efforts that the staff at Skyhorse Publishing put into making this possible. I’m grateful that it worked out so perfectly, and I thank everyone who worked so hard on our behalf. The end result was a LOT of happy people in Hemphill and two very happy authors.

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With Marie “Little Grannie” Nelson, who brought us banana bread

The Tyler, Texas TV station interviewed Mike and me briefly, and then we went to lunch at the church’s family center. You wouldn’t believe the spread of food contributed by the townspeople. You could have had just one teaspoon of food from each of the dishes and still overflowed your plate.

We left from the church for a side trip to two very special sites near town. The first is the “nose cone site,” the place where Columbia’s nose cap came to Earth. The large rounded piece of reinforced carbon-carbon and some supporting structure had crashed through the trees and created a small crater in the forest floor. The US Forest Service helped NASA removed the wreckage from the site, and the piece now resides in the Columbia Preservation Office at Kennedy Space Center. A few PVC pipes mark the perimeter of the indentation that still exists, 15 years later. The Sabine County Memorial Committee has been trying for years to purchase the land to turn the site into a memorial grove. Hopes are high that it can happen sometime in the next couple of years.

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Sean O’Keefe contemplates the site where Columbia’s nose cap impacted the ground. (Jonathan Ward photo)

We then visited the American Hero site, where the first remains of a Columbia crew member were found on February 1, 2003, barely an hour after the accident. It’s a touching reminder of the reverence with which the community still regards Columbia’s crew.

American HeroWe returned to the museum, where Mike graciously helped judge a robotics competition amongst area high schools. After another TV interview, our day wrapped up at about four o’clock. I drove Mike and Jane by the VFW hall outside town, so they could see the place that served as the command center in Sabine County during the recovery. It’s hard to imagine now the days when there were police cruisers parked more than one quarter mile along the road leading to the hall every morning.

We had a few beers to celebrate and unwind in the bar overlooking the lake. The day was such a whirlwind that it’s difficult to take it all in. My predominant emotion is unadulterated joy at being back here on the anniversary, as I promised to Marsha and Belinda two years ago, with a book that celebrates Columbia and the people who brought her home. There’s a sense of pride in a mission accomplished. I feel tremendous love for these wonderful people who have enfolded us in such a warm embrace. I’m delighted that Mike was able to make the trip and make this connection, too.

It’s fantastic to see folks again. Sheriff Maddox told me that I have a “get out of jail free” any time I’m in town. Marie “Little Grannie” Nelson brought us banana bread. Jan Amen made us Smoky the Bear dish cloths! Don Eddings, Don Iles, Mike Alexander, Olen Bean, Roger Gay, Jamie Sowell, and so many others—how great to catch up with you.

And Marsha Cooper and Belinda Gay…what more can you say about two women who have kept the memory and magic of that time alive? I’m deeply grateful to you as always. Thank you.

My heart goes out to Greg Cohrs, who received word during the memorial service that his mother had passed away. Now February 1 will mark two times when Greg’s life changed forever. Greg, I’m deeply sorry for your loss.

We are headed back to Houston again tomorrow for the last leg of our Texas trip.

I know we’ll be back here in Hemphill again.

Three STS-107 Tribute Videos: Part 3

Today I’m sharing the last of the three videos I produced in January as a tribute to the final crew of Columbia.

Bringing Columbia Home: STS-107 Recovery, Reconstruction, and Return to Flight: This eight and one-half minute video centers on rarely-seen EPA and NASA footage of the debris recovery operations in East Texas, activities inside the reconstruction hangar at Kennedy Space Center, and America’s return to manned spaceflight in the STS-114 mission of July 2006. The melancholy mood of the debris search becomes more determined during the investigation and finally ends on a triumphant note as STS-114 successfully completes its mission.

Boats on horizonPlease be aware that the video shows scenes of some of the wrecked pieces of Columbia  as they were found on the ground in East Texas and as they appeared in the reconstruction hangar. It is presented in a tasteful manner, but it may provoke strong emotional responses in some people.

On this day, the fifteenth anniversary of the accident, please pause to thank the Columbia crew for their sacrifice in the name of exploration. Also please thank the people of East Texas and the US who brought meaning to the loss of the ship and her crew by gathering the evidence needed to allow the Space Shuttle program to fly again.

 

Three STS-107 Tribute Videos: Part 1

This month I assembled three videos to memorialize the crew of STS-107 and to recognize the sacrifices of those who fought so hard to bring Columbia home and prepare the shuttle fleet to fly again. These videos were first shown publicly at the “Columbia: Lessons and Legends of Recovery” event at Kennedy Space Center on January 26.

I understand that versions of these videos may be officially shared later on, but I wanted to give you the opportunity to see them this week as we reflect on the crew of STS-107 on this 15th anniversary of their loss.

I’ll share the videos one at a time for the next three days. Although I hope the videos stand on their own, I’ll give a little preview of what you’ll see.

The videos are not subtitled, so you’ll need to have your sound turned on when you watch them. Also, please bear in mind that making these videos was the first time I’d ever used iMovie, and I am far from being a professional video editor!

Today’s video is: STS-107 Preparation and Mission.

The crew of STS-107 discuss their excitement about the upcoming mission. Launch Director Mike Leinbach wishes the crew “Good luck and Godspeed,” and Columbia launches into a beautiful blue sky. We see some highlights of the crew’s on-orbit activities. The six-minute video fades to black with Mission Control’s calls to the crew during re-entry.

Tomorrow: A Tribute to the Crew of Columbia Mission STS-107.

Columbia ascent

“Columbia—Lessons and Legends of Recovery”

On January 26, 2018 I had the distinct honor of being one of several guests in a panel discussions entitled, “Columbia—Lessons and Legends of Recovery.” The panel was produced by Michael “Chach” Ciannilli, head of NASA’s Apollo Challenger Columbia Lessons Learned Program, and it was held in Kennedy Space Center’s Training Auditorium. Several hundred people attended; indeed, it was standing room only!

Chach opened the meeting with a vivid visual image of how the thousands of volunteers and workers from more than one hundred agencies transformed what had been a very dark day into something with a brighter meaning. Chach said that a few glimmers of light in that initial darkness came together to produce a few rays of light, and as the days progressed and more people became involved, those rays came together to form a beams of light, and eventually those beams gathered into a powerful beacon that guided Columbia and her crew home one final time.

Cabana ACCLLP intro.jpgKSC Director Bob Cabana spoke next, recalling how the STS-107 mission was his first as head of the Astronaut Office. He had been on the Astrovan with the crew as they went to the launch pad on January 16, 2003. He was at the runway waiting for them to come home on February 1. And it was a short time after they failed to arrive that he had to inform their families that the crew had perished. Cabana said he hopes no one at NASA will ever have to do something like that again.

Mike Leinbach spoke next, setting the stage for the accident and the early phases of recovery and reconstruction. Mike was followed by Dave King, former Marshall Space Flight Center Director, who led NASA’s efforts to recover Columbia‘s crew and the vehicle’s debris. King said that until we interviewed him for the book, he had rarely spoken to anyone about his experiences in the recovery, and that this was one of the first times he had ever spoken about it publicly.

Following King’s remarks was a short video tribute to the crew of Columbia. I produced the video for this event, and you can find it at this link. The music is as song “Sixteen Minutes from Home,” by Chach’s nephew Kyle Breese.

The next hour was a panel discussion. Included were Greg Cohrs of the USDA Forest Service (who was instrumental in leading the search for Columbia’s crew in Sabine County, Texas), Gerry Schumann (NASA’s Program Manager for Institutional Safety), Dave King, Mike Leinbach, Chach, and myself. We covered a wide range of topics ranging from where we each were when we learned of the accident to the lessons we learned and what we think the American public needs to know.

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Mike Leinbach (left), Dave King, and Gerry Schumann listen to Greg Cohrs. (Jonathan Ward photo)

Most deeply touching to me was hearing senior NASA leaders say that the accident strengthened their resolve to make sure everyone has a voice and to speak up whenever something doesn’t feel right—not to assume that “smart people somewhere must already be looking at this.”

Greg Cohrs and I both provided “outside” perspectives on leadership and communications cultural issues. Greg pointed out that the Forest Service had faced very similar issues in how hard it was for unpleasant information to make it to the attention of management, but the Service was making strides to turn that around. I noted that it is easy for management to say that they want open debate, but that it takes extra effort by leaders to insure that there is no hint of intimidation or retribution if someone brings up difficult subjects.

Mike Leinbach strongly recommended that everyone in the audience read both the Rogers Commission report on the Challenger accident and the CAIB report on the Columbia accident, and then read about how NASA responded to both sets of recommendations. “When faced with a decision about how to proceed,” he said, “I hope you’ll do it the way we did after Columbia.” By that, he meant examining institutional and technical flaws with open discussion and debate, and learning from mistakes rather than treating an accident as an embarrassment to be buried and forgotten.

An audience question and answer session ensued, followed by a meet-and-greet after the program ended. What a thrill it was to be part of this discussion and to relax with some of the participants at Brix in Titusville afterward!

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!

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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

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.