White powder from outer space?

Over the course of the 100 days following the Columbia accident, NASA and the EPA responded to 12,000 calls from residents in Texas and Louisiana about space shuttle debris sightings.

Representatives from NASA and the EPA personally investigated every call. The EPA was responsible for checking the debris for hazards, rendering it safe, and then transporting it to one of the four collection centers along the debris path in Texas. The NASA representative made an initial determination whether or not the debris was likely from the space shuttle.

Many of the items found by local residents were either extremely hazardous (like pyrotechnic devices or pressure vessels with hypergolic propellants) or turned out to be crucial to the accident investigation. NASA was deeply indebted to the citizens who called in such findings.

However, some of the items were of more dubious origin.

Here’s a story about a Columbia debris sighting that won’t make it into our book, but I think it’s worth sharing. Pat Adkins, who was a KSC quality inspector, was deployed to Sabine County, Texas to aid with the recovery of Columbia debris. Here’s his story:

“We responded to a call about some unusual debris. A policeman was holding back a crowd and had placed crime scene tape all around this mound of white, crystalline-looking stuff. And it had one little blue dot in the middle of it. There was nothing else near it—no cylinders, no containers, no nothing.

“The woman who lived there was with him, and the policeman was kind of rolling his eyes. And so that kind of set the tone for us when we looked at him.

“I pulled her aside, and I questioned her. The woman said, ‘This was not here the night before.’ And I said, ‘There’s just nothing from the shuttle that this could possibly be. It didn’t come from the experiment packages.’ But she was insistent.

“I started looking around at all the other stuff that’s in the back area. It’s on the lip of the woods, in back of all of their places, and it’s like everybody’s junkyard back there.

“I said, ‘So tell me something: Do you have a water softener?’ She said, ‘I don’t, but my neighbor does.’ I said, ‘Well, you know, you use rock salt in water softeners.’ And she responded, ‘Yeah, I know you use salt. But this isn’t salt, ’cause it didn’t taste salty.’

“I chuckled a little bit. The poor EPA guy with me is starting to lose it. And even the cop was laughing. I said, ‘So let me get this straight: You think this came out of a spacecraft that has broken up in the upper atmosphere, and you saw it, and thought it was odd enough to call people about. But yet you tasted it?’

“And she got indignant and said, ‘Well, y’all think we’re a bunch of bumpkins anyway.’ Those were her words, I’ll never forget it. And I looked at the EPA guy, and I said, ‘I don’t remember ever saying that.’

“I said to the EPA guy, ‘Look, the only way that this lady is gonna have peace of mind is if we take this, so let’s get a bag.’ And so we dug it up out of her yard, and then smoothed her yard over.

“It was rock salt. The EPA guy had that bag of rock salt in the back of his truck for three weeks. He didn’t know what to do with it. I certainly didn’t want it in my collection area!”

Actual shuttle debris near Etoile, Texas on February 1, 2003. (Courtesy of Jan Amen)

Columbia’s Nose Landing Gear

Columbia‘s NLG (Boeing photo)

One of the most remarkable pieces of wreckage to make it to the ground after Columbia‘s destruction was her nose landing gear (NLG). The NLG was instantly recognizable to anyone who had worked with the space shuttles, and it was a sobering and saddening reminder of the once-proud ship and her crew. The NLG would have been the last part of Columbia to touch down on the runway had she made it home on February 1, 2003.

Pat Adkins (left) hoses mud off the NLG at the Hemphill collection center. (Photo courtesy Texas Forest Service)

Someone found Columbia‘s NLG just inland from a cove on Six Mile Bay on the Toledo Bend Reservoir on February 18, 2003. The NLG arrived at NASA’s collection center at Hemphill, Texas in the bed of a pickup truck that afternoon. Pat Adkins, a quality inspector from Kennedy Space Center, serving on NASA’s Mishap Investigation Team, hosed down and scrubbed the mud off the once-pristine piece of the shuttle. The tires were deflated, the bead was burned off, and the steering actuator arm was missing. Adkins could see where one side of the strut had been exposed to the effects of plasma and hypersonic re-entry.

As with many of the other pieces of Columbia‘s debris, the sight of the landing gear was enough to cause some NASA workers to break down into tears. It was a “whack on the side of the head with a two-by-four” that caused people to confront the reality of the shuttle’s violent destruction.

Everyone from Kennedy Space Center who worked on Columbia‘s recovery and reconstruction had a similar encounter and reaction at some point in the process. No matter how “professional” you try to be, at some point your deepest emotions will come to the surface. It is an unavoidable part of our human reaction to such tragic events. One of the most remarkable parts of the story is that people were able to support each other through their individual and collective grief and then get on with the work of figuring out what caused the accident.


The nose landing gear on the floor of the reconstruction hangar, March 7, 2003. (NASA photo KSC-03pd-0612)

The NLG arrived at the reconstruction hangar at Kennedy Space Center in early March, and was placed on the floor grid near the front of the vehicle.

The NLG is now in the Columbia Preservation Room in KSC’s Vehicle Assembly Building, one of the first items that visitors see upon entering the secure facility. There is a pan underneath the strut to catch hydraulic fluid that occasionally seeps from the piece. It’s hard not to think of the landing gear as a holy relic that still bleeds.

As with all of the other pieces of Columbia‘s debris on display, it serves as a stern reminder that spaceflight is extraordinarily difficult and very risky—every decision has consequences.

The nose landing gear in the Columbia Preservation Room, February 1, 2004. (Photo courtesy Robert Pearlman, collectSPACE.com)

Parallel Confusion

One of the most interesting things I’ve realized while doing the research for the book is what I call ‘Parallel Confusion.’

Those of us at KSC waiting for Columbia to touch down were confused when she didn’t. Those wonderful people in east Texas were confused when they heard the horrible sounds of thousands of pieces of debris falling to the ground.

We didn’t know WHERE it was. They didn’t know WHAT it was.

We were experiencing an emptiness unlike any other, they were experiencing sensory input like none before. All of us would soon come together to solve our mysteries.

A stark example of the depth of those differences that morning happened about an hour after Columbia and her crew should have been on the runway: We were holding our first meeting in the Launch Control Center to lay out our initial actions while the first crew member was being protected by locals having just been found.

Our job; their nightmare.

Within minutes of that, astronauts from JSC were on site taking care of their comrades. Within hours, senior NASA reps were on hand to establish preliminary control of the situation. That evening our first KSC support arrived at Barksdale AFB. The next morning would see us all begin to sort things out.

(Good) Scope Creep

Anyone who has worked on a project knows the dangers of scope creep—those seemingly inevitable changes or “features” that sneak in along the way, causing a project to balloon far beyond what you originally signed on to do. In the world of project management, with deadlines, budgets, and limited resources, scope creep can ruin your life, bankrupt your company, and cause your project to fail.

Writing a book can also take you far afield from your original intent. Scope creep after you’ve signed on with a publisher means precious time wasted on endless rabbit holes of interesting stuff that ultimately has little to do with what you committed to deliver. Then you face weeks of sleepless nights trying to cram your 200,000 words of brilliant material into a 100,000 word book.

For Bringing Columbia Home, our original intent was to tell a success story about the men and women of Kennedy Space Center who had cared for Columbia before and after missions, but who had to fight shock and grief to spend much of 2003 picking up and re-assembling Columbia‘s broken debris.

It was a dramatic, powerful story, and it would have made an interesting book. But every person we interviewed said the same thing: You can’t tell this story without talking about the people of east Texas and what they did to support us.

Mike and I debated whether this avenue was going to open the book up too wide—to dilute the message somehow. It seemed an important topic to pursue, though.

I contacted the board of the Patricia Huffman Smith Museum Remembering Columbia in the small town of Hemphill, Texas, and arranged to visit and interview some of the townspeople. I was unprepared for the outpouring of hospitality I received from people who had no agenda other than to modestly tell their individual parts of the story and see that the good works of their neighbors were remembered.

Working as I do with oral history, it’s always fascinating to come across people who were at the same event recounted by another person you’ve already talked to. Here, I interviewed dozens of townspeople who had so lovingly embraced members of the NASA family in their time of deepest need—nice folks who walked the thorny woods in the sleet, provided meals, opened their homes for NASA workers to stay in, did their laundry, prayed with them on the sidewalks, and provided daily encouragement to NASA to get the Shuttle flying again.

The bond between the people of the NASA community who came to search for their fallen comrades and the citizens Sabine County, Texas is unbreakable. Their histories are forever intertwined and inseparable. You can’t tell the story of Columbia‘s recovery without celebrating the remarkable work of the citizens of east Texas.

You’ll read a lot about them in Bringing Columbia Home.

Mike and I made the right call. This time, scope creep was a good thing.