RIP Space Shuttle Columbia: Picking Up the Pieces

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At 8:59:32 a.m. Columbia was approaching Dallas, Texas, at 200,700 feet and Mach 18.1. At the same time, another broken call, the final call from Columbia’s commander, came on the air-to-ground voice loop. —Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report, p. 43

Some things you remember with your heart and some you remember with your head. Events with an emotional impact are timeless, their memory as clear as yesterday, while those random facts that are processed through your brain are more transient. For example, I can’t remember how to “divide and conquer” a differential equation but I can remember my relief at getting a 28% on a test in that class affectionately called “diffi-que” that turned out to be a “C” thanks to grading on the curve. I can’t remember the specifics of chemical covalent bonds but I can remember discovering a chunk of tartaric acid crystals in a quart of homemade grape juice that represented a major “Aha!” moment when they conformed perfectly to theory.

You have probably noticed that memories with an emotional component are vivid and often come back with all the feelings of the moment. This is because they are not only stored in your brain but also in your heart. Literally. Those of you who don’t believe that should read “The Heart’s Code” by heart surgeon, Paul Pearsall which recounts the remarkable experience of heart transplant patients who experienced it.

One memory stored in my heart is 1 February 2003, the day the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up on entry over Texas skies. It was a Saturday so I wasn’t at work. That morning I was in my workout clothes vacuuming, which ironically kept me from hearing the phone the first few times someone tried to deliver the tragic news. Needless to say I was in shock and left immediately for my office, dressed worse than I would for a visit to Walmart and no makeup, which actually came in handy because tears were inevitably going to be shed that day.

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I worked at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and lived only a mile or so away so it didn’t take long to get to my office. I was employed by a contractor and managed Payload Safety which assured that payloads flying on the shuttle complied with all NASA safety requirements. Payloads comprised everything from satellites to small self-contained experiments. Our involvement on that fateful day involved compiling a list of any toxic materials onboard any payloads that could be a risk to the initial recovery effort. The engineers who were responsible for that mission came into work to compile this information with the assistance of our outstanding administrative support staff, who were amongst the first to arrive at the office.

Only those responsible for payloads onboard were required to report to work, yet I am still touched as I recall those who came in regardless, simply because they felt that was where they were supposed to be, to see if there was anything they could do to help, and to mourn with those who shared their grief. Yes, this is definitely an emotional memory because I am tearing up as I write, seeing those dedicated individuals gathered in my office. I don’t know where all of them are today but I do know at this moment they are in my heart.

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Since the space shuttle vehicle had broken up over a wide swath across Texas, they put together a major recovery effort to gather the debris. This was important to the investigation as well as for safety reasons because there were various dangerous substances associated with the shuttle. To quote the Columbia Accident Investigation Report, “From the start, NASA officials sought to make the public aware of the hazards posed by certain pieces of debris, as well as the importance of turning over all debris to the authorities. Columbia carried highly toxic propellants that maneuvered the Orbiter in space and during early stages of re-entry. These propellants and other gases and liquids were stored in pressurized tanks and cylinders that posed a danger to people who might approach Orbiter debris.” Besides that there were several explosive devices known as pyros used for such things as deploying drogue chutes upon landing.

The debris field stretched from south of Fort Worth, Texas to Fort Polk, Louisiana and covered over two thousand square miles. Base camps were set up in Corsicana, Palestine, Nacogdoches and Hemphill, Texas where search efforts were coordinated. Something drove me to join this effort, even though at 55 I was no spring chicken but in reasonably good physical shape. NASA employees were needed in the field to identify debris. I volunteered and was deployed to the Hemphill camp which operated primarily out of the Sabine County Veterans of Foreign Wars Post Number 10351 facility.

I was a member of one of several twenty-man teams that walked a grid pattern across the debris path. Most of the members were Forest Service workers who had little to do in the spring. Throughout this effort 10,630 Forest Service personnel were involved in both ground search efforts and logistics. The majority were Native Americans known as “smoke jumpers” who would bail out of helicopters to fight fires in the southwest. You can see some of them in the photo below, lined up to get their duds for the following day.  These were some of the most wonderful people I ever met in my life. They could also spot a copperhead sunning itself on a rock from fifty yards. Fortunately most of those critters were still in hibernation and plant life such as poison ivy was barely beginning to emerge from its winter sleep.

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The ground we covered was primarily brush and thickets. We could not use machetes, only walking sticks to avoid giving the entire area an unsightly crew-cut, if you will. We dressed in U.S. Forest Service clothing suited for resisting moisture and hostile plant life such as thorns. Of course boots were part of the garb and it was a bit of a ritual each day to use duct tape to seal your pants to your boots to keep unwanted stickers or critters out. Hardhats and goggles were a required part of our fashion statement. We walked in a straight line regardless of what might be in our way and one time this took me into a tangle of brambles such that I didn’t know how I would get out. I actually got claustrophobic in this vicious web of briars. Fortunately, one of my team members came to my rescue and opened up an escape route.

We took an hour lunch break each day and for many it was nap time, including myself. That was the only time in my life when I could lay down on the bare ground, head on my forty-pound backpack, and sleep like a baby. I awoke one time to see three of my teammates trying to figure out how to wake me up. Maybe they thought I was dead. There were times I thought that maybe I was.

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I was one of the lucky ones, I had a hotel room while many stayed in a tent city set-up at the VFW facility. I remember one of many long days which started at 6 a.m. and ended about 7 p.m. with twenty miles of walking inbetween after which I went back to my room to shower up and then go find something to eat. Breakfast and lunch were provided but we were on our own for dinner. This wasn’t easy in a tiny Texas town where there was only one restaurant that was open after seven or eight o’clock. I sat at a table and a small group came in a bit later that I recognized from my team and so I smiled and nodded at them. In return I got a trio of blank looks. Too tired to pursue it at the moment, the next day I asked them about it and they laughed and said they didn’t recognize me without my hardhat, shooting glasses, boots and classy Forest Service yellow shirt and green pants.

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The experience was physically, mentally and emotionally demanding. My group found items that ranged from an intact spherical oxygen tank about six feet in diameter to smaller bits of composite structure. One of the massive shuttle main engines fell into nearby Toledo Bend Reservoir (shown above) while the other landed on a golf course in Louisiana, creating a new unexplained water hazard which was eventually investigated to reveal its cause. There was one day when just about everything we found was a personal item of the crew. I tear up again as I remember logging a recovered food bag which had Astronaut Laurel Clark’s name on it.

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Periodically we were assigned to the base camp to sort smaller debris and determine for certain whether it was shuttle related or simply junk. A teammate reached into one of the huge black garbage bags filled with the previous day’s efforts and removed a baseball. When he held it out for me to see, I scowled and shook my head, thinking it didn’t belong. Then he turned it so I could see the back, which was singed black and partially melted from re-entry, apparently being flown for a Little League coach, crew family member or some other individual. Crew personal items such as that were returned directly to the astronaut office in Houston while everything else went back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

I could go on and on but this is probably long enough if your eyes haven’t already glazed over. Fortunately I kept a daily diary during that time which will aid me in my next writing project. When I get my science fiction books properly launched I’ll probably start writing my NASA memoirs of which there are many stories, not only about Hemphill but numerous others. Meanwhile, for today, 1 February 2015, while others celebrated Superbowl Sunday, I found myself wandering down Memory Lane, reliving an experience preserved within my heart that I’ll never forget.

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