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10 Years Later: Poupard, Horvath Recall Columbia
As he watched the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster unfold on TV, Charles Poupard never imagined he'd end up helping with the debris recovery effort.

But the next week, Poupard, who worked in Structures and Materials at NASA's Langley Research Center at the time, went to his boss with a question.

"What can I do to help?"

Charles Poupard

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Charles Poupard, a program specialist in the Safety and Facility Assurance Branch, spent two weeks in Texas helping with the debris recovery effort following the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. The image on his computer monitor shows Columbia's debris field. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Tom Horvath

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The work of NASA Langley engineer Tom Horvath helped steer the direction of NASA's investigation of the Columbia disaster. He also made important contributions to the shuttle's return to flight. NASA photo

A month later, there he was, boots on the ground, serving a two-week stint as part of a debris recovery team based in Hemphill, Texas.

Poupard was one of 20 NASA Langley employees who participated in the recovery effort following the 2003 disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia as it reentered Earth's atmosphere over Texas and Louisiana. February 1st marks the 10th anniversary of the accident.

Poupard still has vivid memories of his time in Texas — most of it spent tromping through the woods looking for debris.

"It was a good 12- to 13-hour day every day," he said.

Clad in hard hats and protective clothing, their boots taped up to keep out water and bugs, Poupard's team covered a lot of ground, often contending with wet, muddy conditions.

Along the way they picked up a lot of shuttle debris, including pieces of the landing gear and control boxes. Posts marked with pink flags identified spots where human remains had been discovered on earlier searches. Animals were a common site — dogs, cows, buffalo, wild pigs, skunks, peacocks and snakes.

Though the conditions weren't always ideal and the work was hard, Poupard has fond memories of the experience. He particularly enjoyed working with members of the Rosebud Sioux tribe of South Dakota. They had been brought down to help out with the recovery effort and their knowledge of the outdoors proved invaluable.

"They were the ones that would tell you to look up or look down," he said, "because they could look in the trees and tell you if something came through."

Now, nearly 10 years later, Poupard says it wasn't until he got home from Texas that he finally allowed himself to feel the emotional impact.

"I remember sitting in the chair and they had this thing on TV showing the kids of the astronauts," he said. "It really bothered me then, because it was more personal."

It was personal for Tom Horvath, too.

The morning of the disaster, Horvath, an engineer at NASA Langley's Aerothermodynamics Branch, recalls experiencing a "prickly feeling" in his extremities as he watched the news coverage on TV.

"I kind of knew what it should look like," he said, "and I was like, 'Whoa, that doesn't look good.' "

The Monday after the accident, he went straight to work trying to figure out what might have caused Columbia to disintegrate.

Video of the launch showed a piece of foam coming off the external fuel tank and striking the shuttle, and the investigation quickly focused in on that. But wind tunnel tests weren't providing the answers investigators were hoping for.

"One night I told my wife, 'Well, this is not making sense,' " Horvath said.

After watching the launch video several times, he became convinced that the foam had struck the left wing's leading edge. So he went to the wind tunnel with a Dremel tool and drilled a little nick into the spot where he thought the impact had occurred. Then he ran a tunnel test.

"That little nick in the wing leading edge, it created a hotspot on the vehicle that, lo and behold, was close to one of those thermocouples that were we seeing in flight that's normally cold — all of a sudden it got hot," he said.

Ultimately, Horvath's findings helped steer NASA's investigation of the accident, which did, in fact, reveal that the loss of Columbia was due to damage that occurred when a piece of foam from the external fuel tank struck the thermal protection system (TPS) on the leading edge of the left wing.

In addition to that, Horvath's work, like the work of many others at NASA Langley, played an important role in the shuttle's eventual return to flight.

He was the principal investigator for the Hypersonic Thermodynamic Infrared Measurements (HYTHIRM) team, which provided NASA with thermal images of the shuttle's exterior temperatures during descent. That program evolved into Scientifically Calibrated In-Flight Imagery (SCIFLI), an effort to adapt the HYTHIRM technology to the next generation of space vehicles.

Today, Horvath is hoping to evolve that program even further. And though the loss of Columbia still resonates deeply with him, he's able to look at his body of work over the last decade as testament to the good that came out of such tragedy.

He also appreciates the lessons it taught him about communication — especially communication with other centers.

"I think it's good," he said. "What came out of it — my colleagues and I have a better appreciation of what it takes to work with a manned spaceflight center to get the job done."

Poupard still appreciates the lessons he learned, too.

"As a personal thing, I learned a lot from that," he said, a slideshow of photos from his time in Texas on the computer monitor behind him. "I mean, it's sad, but it would be sadder if we didn't learn anything."

By: Joe Atkinson

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman