The Columbia Recovery Phase Ends

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 StuffJan 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.

Banquet - The Crowd
Part of the crowd at the banquet in the Lufkin Civic Center on April 29, 2003. (Photo by Jan Amen)

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.

Banquet - Evelyn Husband
Evelyn Husband, wife of Columbia’s Commander Rick Husband, conveys her thanks to the people of Texas. (Photo by Jan Amen)

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.]

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.

The Recovery Passes the Halfway Mark

At the beginning of April 2003, the search efforts for recovery of Columbia‘s debris passed the halfway mark.

From the time operations went into full swing at the end of the third week of February, the Texas Forest Service had overseen the mobilization of more than 12,200 men and women from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. These firefighters came from more than forty states and Puerto Rico.

April 1 ground search status
Firefighters came from nearly every US state and Puerto Rico to search for Columbia’s wreckage. This map shows the number of wild land firefighters and support staff deployed by each state as of April 1, 2003. 

They entered the recovery zone through a processing facility set up by the Texas Forest Service in Longview, Texas. After an orientation on what they were looking for and the hazards they might encounter, the fire crews and their supervisory Incident Management Teams were deployed to camps in Corsicana, Palestine, Nacogdoches, and Hemphill. These towns were spaced roughly fifty miles apart along the debris field. The crews then spent two to three weeks conducting grid searches in their assigned areas. Then they were rotated out and replaced by fresh crews.

Longview cots
Cots for transiting fire crews in the Longview staging camp. (Photo by Jan Amen)

Their efforts produced astonishing results. As of April 2, 2003, the crews had searched every foot of an area of 426,844 acres (667 square miles). They had recovered 65,730 pounds of material from Columbia, equal to about 29% of the vehicle’s weight. Their efforts were also being supplemented by 37 helicopters, 8 fixed-wing aircraft, and salvage divers and surface boats in Lake Nacogdoches and the Toledo Bend Reservoir.

In this first incident response by the newly-created Department of Homeland Security, FEMA coordinated the federal agencies and funded the operations. NASA managed the overall search and provided technical assistance. The Environmental Protection Agency identified and handled hazardous materials, and transported all materials recovered during the search. The Texas Forest Service coordinated the air and ground searches. The US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the National Park Service provided the majority of the search crews and equipment. The US Navy and Coast Guard conducted the water searches.

Those are just some of the lead agencies. More than ninety federal, state, and local government agencies assisted in some way with the aftermath of the Columbia accident.

It was on the surface a collaboration of unlikely partners, but each agency brought its core expertise to bear in the largest and most remarkable inter-agency operation ever conducted.

Astronaut Jerry Ross told me during an interview for the book that “people first and foremost need to understand the greatness of the United States and its citizens. The United Sates has an incredible wealth of capabilities. To see the energy and expertise and materials and technical capabilities that descended on Lufkin within hours of the accident was so reassuring.”

In times when we hear people complaining about “government incompetence,” it’s helpful to remember that agencies are made up of people. People—not faceless agencies—get the work done. And we need to know that our federal and state agencies are made up of a lot of motivated and dedicated people who want to see our country be successful.

“Their Mission Became Our Mission”

In East Texas, people make sure you are aware that nine people lost their lives as a result of the Columbia accident—the seven astronauts and two searchers.

Supplementing the massive ground search for Columbia‘s debris was an aerial search of the area on several miles on each side of the ground search corridor. The Texas Forest Service managed more than thirty contracted helicopters that were operating in the air over East Texas every day.

Pilots flew just above treetop level, as spotters searched for debris on the ground. The spotters generally included representatives from the Texas Forest Service, the US Forest Service, and NASA or its contractor United Space Alliance (USA).

The air searches were not without risk. Flying just above the treetops, there was often little room for a pilot to make an emergency landing if something went wrong. Makeshift power lines cropped up in strange places in the rural areas, posing hazards to air crews who attempted to land to pick up debris.

On the afternoon March 27, 2003, luck ran out for one of the air search crews. Pilot Jules “Buzz” Mier was flying his Bell 407 helicopter over the Angelina National Forest that day, accompanied by Charles Krenek of the Texas Forest Service in the front seat. In the rear of the helicopter were Matt Tschacher of the US Forest Service, Richard Lange from USA, and Ronnie Dale from NASA’s Safety and Process Assurance Branch at Kennedy Space Center.

Mier was an Army Vietnam veteran with thousands of hours of flight experience. He had a business operating air tours in the Grand Canyon. When he heard that the country needed experienced pilots for the Columbia search, he answered the call to service.

Krenek was a resident of Lufkin, Texas. He had twenty-six years of experience as an aviation specialist and a woodland firefighter. He was well-known and well-liked throughout East Texas.

Krenek-Mier crew
The helicopter crew on the day of the accident. From left: Matt Tschacher, Buzz Mier, Richard Lange, Ronnie Dale, and Charles Krenek. (Photo courtesy “Boo” Walker)

After a stop for lunch and refueling, Mier and his crew took off at 3:15 on Thursday, March 27 for their second search mission of the day. About an hour into the flight, the engine suddenly quit. Mier, flying just above the treetops over Ayish Bayou, had no options for autorotating to a safe landing. The helicopter crashed nose-first into the crown of an oak tree and plummeted to the ground. Mier and Krenek were killed instantly when the cockpit was crushed. The three men in the rear seat were all badly injured, but they all survived.

Local resident William Dickerson and his nephew were fishing in the area when they heard the helicopter go down. They helped the injured men from the helicopter and to the nearest road, and then went to call for help. US Forest Service law enforcement officer Doug Hamilton and Sabine County Sheriff Tom Maddox were among the first responders. After wading back through the swampy area to the crash site, they realized they could not bring out the bodies and Mier and Krenek without assistance.

Felix Holmes and Marsha Cooper of the US Forest Service brought a bulldozer and several all-terrain vehicles to the site. Holmes knocked down pine trees with his dozer to create a makeshift path for the ATVs.

East Texas was in shock after the accident, losing a “favorite son” in the search for Columbia. Despite the grief, no one voiced regrets or blame. Rather, the community regarded it as a sacrifice to an important undertaking. It proved that the people of East Texas were doing their utmost to help NASA return to flight, no matter the personal cost.

The motto that had been circulating since the early days of the recovery effort now seemed even more poignant. Their mission became our mission took on a much deeper meaning for the citizens of East Texas. They were now inextricably part of the Columbia story—their own blood mixed with the blood of NASA’s astronauts.

The crash caused an immediate stand-down in air searches while the NTSB and the participating agencies investigated the accident and reviewed search procedures. The cause was traced to a faulty fuel control unit. Search procedures were revised to improve safety and eliminate unnecessary risks. Searches would have to be from a higher altitude. There would be no more landing to pick up debris; searchers would call in GPS coordinates for ground teams to make recoveries. Finally, air operations would be concentrated farther west in the debris field, which as less heavily forested than the eastern portion.

Now that they had given the lives of one of their own men to the cause, it was more critical than ever to ensure that the task was worthwhile—that these two men and the crew of Columbia had not died in vain. And indeed, the air searches were very productive, eventually accounting for 65 percent of the shuttle debris that ended up on the grid in the reconstruction hangar. They helped solve the mystery of the accident.

[Please see this excellent article by Christopher Freeze for more technical information about the accident.]

Columbia’s “Black Box”

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.

OEX before
Columbia‘s OEX recorder, as it looked before the accident. (NASA photo)

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.

Florida search crews on March 19 2003
Fire crews Florida 3 and 4 on March 19, 2003, near the site where the OEX recorder was found. (Jeremy Willoughby photo)

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.

OEX recorder and tape reels
The OEX recorder and tape reels in the Columbia Research and Preservation Office, February 1, 2004. (Photo courtesy Robert Pearlman/collectSPACE)

 

 

Columbia Accident Investigation Board Public Hearings Begin, March 6, 2003

One of NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe’s first actions after Columbia disintegrated on February 1, 2003 was to activate an independent investigative board. NASA had at least fourteen formal internal task forces and teams designated to respond to the accident and investigate technical issues. However, policy mandated the formation of an independent board after a significant incident and loss of the crew. This board named itself the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, or CAIB (pronounced kabe) soon after its first meeting.

O’Keefe asked Admiral Harold “Hal” Gehman to chair the board. Gehman had recently completed an investigation into the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole. Other members of the Board included leaders from the military, NASA, FAA, research institutions, and other experts.

One of the truisms of a catastrophic accident such as Columbia‘s destruction is that it is almost never due to a single piece of hardware failing. Complex systems like the space shuttle and commercial airplanes are designed and built with all sorts of fail-safe mechanisms and components. For example, if a guidance computer fails, there is a backup (and sometimes several) that can take over. History has shown repeatedly that it usually takes a cascading series of failures to cause the destruction of something like the space shuttle.

Those failures are not always mechanical. They are often compounded by breakdown of  processes and how the organizations and people work within the system.

Therefore, the CAIB was empowered to examine not only the physical causes of the accident, but also to look into any organizational, cultural, procedural, policy, design, or other factors that may have played a role.

So while NASA’s internal teams and task forces collected and analyzed the debris from the accident, looked into the telemetry that was received from Columbia in its final minutes, and ran checks on the history of the ship’s hardware, the CAIB interviewed personnel who were involved in various discussions and decisions prior to the accident.

The CAIB held the first of its public hearings on March 6, 2003. Space Shuttle Program Manager Ron Dittemore was one of the first to testify, and the CAIB questioned him at length about subject such as recent changes to program staffing that might have affected operational safety. Johnson Space Center director Jefferson Howell, like Dittemore, disagreed with any suggestion that NASA underestimated shuttle risks or that safety did not receive the highest possible emphasis. However, former Ames Research Center director Harry McDonald suggested that he believed NASA had moved too far toward considering the shuttles as “operational” vehicles rather than complex research and development spacecraft.

Testimony later in the week focused on issues such as whether the insulating foam on the shuttle’s external tank could absorb water and potentially freeze, making the foam heavier and thus more of a threat to the orbiter. Other witnesses spoke about the decision to fly two shuttle missions after Atlantis was struck by insulation on STS-112 in October 2002.

Although many of the points that were raised were difficult for NASA to hear, Administrator O’Keefe had made it abundantly clear that he wanted full and open cooperation with the investigation. The only chance NASA had of finding and fixing the issues that doomed Columbia was to bring everything out into the spotlight for intense scrutiny.

BoardPortrait

Members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. From left to right, seated: Scott Hubbard, Dr. James N. Hallock, Dr. Sally Ride, Board Chairman Admiral (retired) Hal Gehman, Steven Wallace, Dr. John Logsdon, Dr. Sheila Widnall. Standing from left to right: Dr. Douglas Osheroff, Maj. General John Barry, Rear Admiral Stephen Turcotte, Brig. General Duane Deal,  Maj. General Kenneth W. Hess, and Roger Tetrault.

Wildland Fire Crews to the Rescue

Within two weeks of the Columbia accident, an intense search effort by NASA, the US Forest Service, the Texas Forest Service, the FBI, the National Guard, the Texas Department of Public Safety, local law enforcement officers, and hundreds of volunteers located the remains of Columbia‘s crew in Sabine County, Texas.

Meanwhile, in the Persian Gulf, seven thousand miles away from the pine thickets of East Texas, the US was gearing up for the opening of another war front in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The National Guard was pulled within a few days of the last crew member being located.

The immediate urgency of the search operation was significantly reduced. NASA and the EPA had located and cleared many of the hazardous materials that had fallen to the ground from the shuttle—tanks with hypergolic propellants, pyrotechnic charges, and the like.

And yet, tens of thousands of pieces of debris still remained on the ground in a path more than 250 miles long and 10 miles wide, stretching from near Dallas to Ft. Polk, Louisiana. NASA still had no firm evidence about what had caused the accident; there were still many possible failure scenarios on the fault tree.

The spring “green up” would be coming within a month or two. Once that occurred, the underbrush would become impassable to ground search teams. And it was unreasonable to expect the small towns along the debris corridor to endure the disruption and hardship of supporting  a large number of searchers for a prolonged time. Although there were many volunteers who would gladly have continued working in the search, the NASA and FEMA leaders in Lufkin resolved not to put civilians in harm’s way for what was now a debris salvage operation.

So how could such a huge expanse of land be cleared quickly?

Mark Stanford of the Texas Forest Service and Marc Rounsaville of the US Forest Service made a proposal to NASA and FEMA: Use US Forest Service Incident Management Teams (IMTs) supported by wild land fire crews to run the search. Stanford and Rounsaville had actually proposed this more than a week earlier, but idea hadn’t taken hold. Now, it seemed intriguing.

National IMTs come from all over the United States. They are trained to deal with many types of complex “all-hazard” incidents, ranging from wildfires to hurricanes to the response to the World Trade Center attacks. IMTs deploy as completely self-contained units, with their own logistical support, and can be on site within days. They would be supported by hundreds of fire crews, each composed of twenty able-bodied men and women who were already skilled in the techniques of grid searching. They would only need to be trained in what to look for.

Astronauts Dom Gorie and Jerry Ross, who were helping to manage the debris search for NASA, asked how many people could be brought in. Stanford said he could have 1,000 people on site within a matter of days. Gorie and Ross immediately asked, “How about a thousand more?” Stanford said it could be done. “How about another thousand?” It was possible, but might take a few extra days.

Gorie was impressed. He said, “It was miraculous. I had no idea that anything like this could be generated just for this effort.”

Calculations showed that search lines of people stretched five to ten feet apart were likely to find at least 75 percent of all objects six inches square or larger in the debris field. Ground searchers would cover every square foot of an area three miles on either side of the center line of the debris corridor. Air crews in government-contracted helicopters would search another two miles on each side of the ground search corridor. This would theoretically enable NASA to recover an amazing 95 percent of the debris on the ground.

And the operation could be completed by April 15.

NASA and FEMA gave the approval to get the operation underway by the last week of February, 2003. The Texas Forest Service would manage the overall effort. There would be two months of an all-out push to find and recover the rest of Columbia‘s debris.

Ultimately, nearly 22,000 men and women were involved in this ground search.

We will hear much more about this operation in the coming weeks.

nac-arena
The Nacagoches Rodeo Arena becomes a “tent city” of wild land fire crew searchers.

The Second Week of the Recovery

NASA and the country held memorial services for Columbia‘s crew beginning with a service at Johnson Space Center on February 4. The next day, a service was held at Washington DC’s National Cathedral. On February 7, NASA leaders gathered on the Shuttle Landing Facility runway at Kennedy Space Center. Columbia‘s first pilot, astronaut Robert Crippen, delivered a moving eulogy to Columbia and her crew.

NASA’s press release of February 5 stated that remains of all seven Columbia crew members had been returned to Dover Air Force Base. That was factually correct, but not complete information. What the release did not say was that two of the crew were still missing. Up to 1,600 Forest Service personnel, National Guard troops, employees of the Texas Department of Public Safety, and volunteers combed the woods of Sabine County over the weekend of February 8 and 9 in a desperate search for the crew. Cold rain, sleet, and miserable conditions plagued the searchers.

On February 10, one of the National Guard units located the remains of the sixth of Columbia‘s crew near Toledo Bend Reservoir. Remains of the seventh and final crew member were found the next day. The sense of elation and relief felt by the searchers can’t be adequately described. Local resident Mike Alexander, a volunteer searcher since the day after the accident, broke into tears when he heard the announcement. “I just started crying out there in the woods,” he said. “I couldn’t help it. I thought, ‘We got closure now.'”

Volunteers in Sabine County had provided almost all of the food and shelter for the searchers. It was impossible to determine precisely how much food had been donated or how many thousand meals had been served at Hemphill’s VFW hall. Best estimates were that this relatively small community and a handful of volunteers had prepared and served 30,000 to 50,000 meals in two weeks. The community had donated over $620,000 in services to the recovery—at no cost to the federal or state government.

“It’s just people helping people—that’s what this small town is about,” said Roger Gay, Hemphill VFW’s commander. “Everybody likes to help everybody else, and they don’t expect anything from it. It was an occurrence that happened, and we dealt with it the best way we knew how.”

NASA’s Dave King summed up, “The people of East Texas made you proud to be an American, because they sacrificed and gave everything they had to try to help us. It was unbelievable what they did for us.”

Elsewhere in the 250-mile-long corridor where Columbia‘s wreckage came to Earth, hundreds of United Space Alliance and NASA personnel from Kennedy Space Center, along with representatives of the EPA, were working with local authorities to investigate debris sightings, check the pieces for contamination with hypergolic propellants, and then bring the items back to collection centers. The debris being found ranged from pieces of the wing to items from the crew module.

On February 7, searchers near Palestine, Texas found a videotape cassette, one of many that had at least partially survived the accident. Astronaut Ron Garan collected the tapes and flew them on a T-38 to Washington, DC, where he inspected them at the NTSB’s headquarters. Most were blank or were data tapes. However, one caused him to freeze when he started playing it.

It was the cockpit video of Columbia‘s reentry.

“The hair stood up on the back of my neck,” Garan said, “because we didn’t know how long the video was going to last or what it was going to show.” To his relief, the tape ended several minutes before the first sign of trouble.

NASA publicly released the video on February 28. The tape showed Columbia’s crew happy, being professional, and enjoying the ride. They were passing the camera around, smiling at each other, and remarking on the sight of the glowing plasma surrounding the orbiter. They were obviously unaware that anything was wrong with their ship.

Barksdale AFB and Lufkin, Texas

NASA’s contingency plans swung into action within minutes of the accident. An hour later, Administrator Sean O’Keefe named Dave King—deputy director at Marshall Spaceflight Center—to head the recovery of Columbia and her crew. At about the same time, FEMA told Scott Wells to head from Jonesboro, Arkansas to Lufkin, Texas, where the FBI was already starting to try to put its hands around the accident. Someone from the US Attorney’s Office in Lufkin secured the used of the town’s Civic Arena for use as a command center. King flew to Lufkin, which became the nexus of the federal response to the Columbia accident for the next three months.

Meanwhile, Dave Whittle from Johnson Space Center, who was designated to head NASA’s Mishap Investigation Team, looked for a secure site where he could coordinate the logistics for the remains of the crew and the debris from the ship. He identified Barksdale Air Force Base, near Shreveport, as a suitable site. Barksdale was home of the Air Force’s 2nd Bomb Wing. Its B-52s were preparing for the imminent invasion of Iraq.

The first 79 members of Kennedy’s Rapid Response Team, led by Mike Leinbach, deployed to Barksdale on the evening of February 1 and set up shop in “Nose Dock 6” to support Whittle in the debris recovery effort. Over the next several days, several hundred more people would deploy from Kennedy to Barksdale and then to the field.

If the number of teams seems confusing, this is a simplified list. NASA named fourteen official teams and working groups within the first few hours of the accident for its own internal purposes and to support the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB). This was in addition to representatives from EPA, FBI, NTSB, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the US Coast Guard—ultimately over 450 federal, state, and local agencies and organizations—that responded to the accident.

By the evening of February 1—still less than twelve hours after the accident—the Lufkin Civic Center was a maelstrom of activity. Hundreds of “Type-A” leaders from the various agencies staked out space, set up their command centers, and tried to figure out how to help. To the untrained eye, it appeared to be absolute chaos.

Mark Stanford from the Texas Forest Service was assigned by his manager to implement the Incident Command System at Lufkin. A veteran of many “all-risk” type of incidents, Stanford knew when he walked in the door at the Civic Center that it would take two to three days for order to emerge from the chaos. This was a normal part of the process. Rather than trying to assert his authority, he had learned a tactic for gaining the trust of the leaders: “Find someone who appears to be in charge. Ask him or her what three things are causing them the biggest headaches, then go fix those things. Then you’ll be a valued member of the team.”

One of the most amazing outcomes of the Columbia accident was the remarkable level of cooperation between agencies that developed over the next several days. There were no turf battles. The Incident Command System provided a framework with clear command and reporting structures that allowed each agency to contribute in the areas where it could be most effective.

But it would take several days for FEMA and NASA to begin to get a handle on what was going on.

On the morning of February 2, the NTSB told Dave Whittle’s team at Barksdale that they estimated that no more than 5 to 10 percent of the shuttle would have survived reentry. KSC’s Ed Mango looked at the map on the wall—already populated with hundreds of pushpins marking phoned-in debris sightings—and knew that things didn’t add up. Mango, along with astronauts Jerry Ross and Dom Gorie, drove to Lufkin to investigate first-hand. Gorie made some calls and secured the use of four Army National Guard helicopters to scout the debris field, the extent of which was still unknown.

Mango took one helicopter to Chireno, Texas, where someone had reported finding a tire in their field. How could a piece of rubber survive a hypersonic breakup and reentry? It seemed incredible. The landowner then told Mango that something else had landed in the adjacent farm. Mango found it.

It was a locker from Columbia‘s crew module—and most of its contents were still intact.

Meanwhile, Jerry Ross flew to Louisiana to check out an unusual sighting near Ft. Polk. People had heard loud sonic booms. A US Forest Service team drove around the area to check things out. They passed a water-filled puddle and then noticed: mud was splashed forty feet high on the surrounding trees.

This was not a puddle. It was an impact crater. Ross instantly recognized part of a shuttle engine powerhead poking above the water in the hole.

The national news media and volunteer searchers swelled the towns in East Texas. The population of Hemphill, Texas doubled almost overnight as people came to help with the search. By the end of the second day, searchers had found the remains of two more of Columbia‘s crew. The next day, two more crew members were located. Hopes ran high that the last two crew members would be found soon.

Next time: The CAIB

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The Salvation Army provided food for the hundreds of command center personnel at the Lufkin Civic Center. (Photo by Jan Amen)

The Sky Is Falling

February 1, 8:05 a.m. CST
Deep East Texas

While the team at Kennedy Space Center wondered where Columbia was, the citizens of Deep East Texas wondered what terrible disaster was being visited upon them from the sky. It was the supreme moment of parallel confusion.

People were waking up to a chilly, foggy Saturday morning.  Starting just after 8 a.m., the ground began shaking and the air was filled with a sound that was impossible to describe. A continuous cavalcade of staccato booms and blasts lasted several minutes. Houses shook to their foundations. Windows vibrated so violently that people thought they would break.

In Sabine County, US Forest Service law officer Doug Hamilton was convinced it was Judgment Day. He opened the front door of his house, prepared to meet Jesus.

Less than a year and a half after the attacks of September 11, 2001, timber sale forester Greg Cohrs wondered if a terrorist nuclear blast had destroyed Houston or New Orleans.

In the small town of Hemphill, near the border with Louisiana, children and their parents were gathered in the barn of the youth arena for the first-day weigh-in for the county’s livestock show. The open-sided building began to shudder and shake as the sound of “sonic booms times one thousand” tore the air. Elementary school teacher Sunny Whittington ran outside and saw dozens of smoke trails—some corkscrewing across the sky, others continuing straight. Her husband speculated that two planes has collided above the town.

Some people heard sounds like helicopter blades, as pieces of metal whirled through the air and hit the ground around them. Dogs ran in circles, barking at the sky.

Fishermen on Toledo Bend Reservoir saw something that appeared to be the size of a compact car hit the water at high speed. The ensuing wave nearly swamped their boat.

Sabine County Sheriff Tom Maddox was in his office in Hemphill. The building shook so hard that he thought the roof of the jail collapsed. Almost immediately afterward, all of his phone lines lit up. One person reported a train derailment at one end of the county. Another reported a plane crash. Yet another said that the natural gas pipeline traversing the county had exploded. What the heck was going on?

Unknown to most residents at the moment, the space shuttle Columbia, traveling at Mach 12 and more than 180,000 feet in altitude, had disintegrated at about 8:00 in a “catastrophic event” over Palestine, Texas. Most citizens were not even aware that a shuttle mission was in progress that day.

For the next half hour, debris from the ship—and the remains of her crew—rained down along a path 250 miles long and 20 miles wide, stretching from near Dallas to Fort Polk, Louisiana.

The constant thunderous noise heard by the residents was caused by more than 80,000 pieces of the shuttle, each breaking the sound barrier and creating its own sonic boom as it fell to the ground.

Within half an hour, word spread about news reports that Columbia had crashed.

The town of Nacogdoches, 60 miles west of Hemphill, was in the direct path of the disintegrating shuttle. Metallic debris was coming down everywhere around the town.

Law enforcement began responding to debris sightings. Word came from NASA that the material might be contaminated with toxic fuels. The location of everything found was to be GPS recorded if possible, with items left in place for subsequent collection.

By noon that first day, the remains of a Columbia crew member had been located. Mark Kelly was the first NASA astronaut on the scene. Along with Maddox, FBI special agent Terry Lane, and Hemphill Baptist pastor “Brother Fred” Raney, they conducted a short service for the fallen astronaut. For the next two weeks, a NASA astronaut, Maddox, an FBI special agent, and Raney would be at the recovery of each of Columbia‘s crew and perform the solemn service at the “chapel in the woods.”

Meanwhile, an Incident Command Post was  established at Hemphill’s volunteer fire department. Billy Ted Smith, the emergency management coordinator for the East Texas Mutual Aid Association, shared the role of incident commander with Sheriff Maddox for the Sabine, Jasper, and Newton County area.

Greg Cohrs was called in and tasked with organizing the response to the hundreds of reports that were pouring into the fire station. As the day wore on, the situation became more chaotic, as concerned citizens sidetracked the volunteers who were attempting to respond to the debris reports. Cohrs eventually restored order and began planning a more methodical response to the situation.

As evening came, Cohrs had plotted what he believed was the centerline of the debris field through Sabine County. He would organize searches for Columbia‘s crew beginning at daybreak the next morning.

Next time: Barksdale and Lufkin

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The Etoile (Texas) Volunteer Fire Department responds to the first confirmed sighting of Columbia debris in their community, February 1, 2003. (Photo by Jan Amen)