Columbia Recovery Efforts
The major Columbia recovery efforts in East Texas required a cast of thousands and had produced about 40 percent of the Space Shuttle by weight as the mission wound up in late April.
Although the task was a somber one for workers from across the country, it was a challenge that often brought out the best in those who served in the field.
"It showed us what happens when the country sees the vehicle on the ground. We learned firsthand that people love the space program and want to support it any way they can," said Kennedy Space Center Launch Manager Ed Mango, who served as recovery director for about three and a half months.
Mango vividly remembers a family's reaction February 2, the day after Columbia broke up in the skies of East Texas on its way back home to Kennedy Space Center.
Mango, accompanied by two service men and a Texas State Trooper, was surveying the suspected debris field in a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter.
The group came across a farm field and spied what they later learned was the Shuttle's left main tire and attached structure. The family that owned the farm greeted the helicopter landing with open arms.
All the men expressed sorrow for the loss, and the woman put her hand on my shoulder and said we were all in their prayers," Mango said. "The woman asked if we would fly again, as if knowing the only answer she would accept was 'Yes!'"
The encounter was just an early example of support space program workers and others would receive from East Texas residents.
Preceding a highly organized grid-based search that lasted for three and a half months were two weeks of recovery efforts by residents and members of the National Guard. Local restaurants, including McDonald’s, provided workers free food.
NASA KSC's Gerry Schumann, the Hemphill incident commander, noted the tireless support by Roger and Belinda Gay, owners of Fat Fred's convenience store and restaurant in Hemphill.
Roger serves as commander of the local VFW post where the Hemphill recovery effort was based and Belinda as president of the ladies auxiliary.
The two worked nonstop with Schumann and others during the early weeks of the recovery to organize, feed and otherwise support searchers.
"These people felt called to serve and they answered the call with no thought for themselves," Schumann said. "The whole town has continued to show us tremendous support."
After the first two weeks, the search was organized by coordinating wildland federal agencies funded by FEMA. Teams of full-time and seasonal Texas and U.S. Forest Service workers were accompanied by space program and Environmental Protection Agency workers as they scoured woods and fields for Shuttle materials for about three and a half months. The recovery groups wore chaps and other gear to protect themselves from briars and cottonmouth snakes in the woods.
Full-time and seasonal Forest Service workers were up to the rigors of the search because of their experience over the years fighting fires. Their stamina and appreciation of the space program was an inspiration to space program workers, said Jeff Angermeier, who relieved Mango at the Lufkin Command Center
"When you work in the program all the time, you care deeply about it, but it isn't glamorous to you. Out away from the space centers NASA is a big deal," Angermeier said. "The townspeople and firefighters were fired up and that fired our people up."
NASA and contractor team members who were called upon to work 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in the field often volunteered with enthusiasm. Others not tapped sought the duty, which they called "an honor."
David McLaughlin, a NASA technician at Kennedy Space Center’s Prototype Lab, for example, spent much effort convincing managers he would be of help on a recovery team.
During his stint in Hemphill, McLaughlin worked with the Laguna Fire Fighters, a Native American team from New Mexico.
McLaughlin said, "I knew I couldn’t change what happened, but I could do what I could in the efforts to get us back flying again. I have especially been moved by the passion and determination of my crew to push through the briars and find every piece to the puzzle they can."
Space program team members who worked intimately with Columbia on a day-to-day basis and those who knew the fallen STS-107 astronauts personally found their service in the field both painful and rewarding.
Jim Moos, the United Space Alliance (USA) manager at the Barksdale Hangar in Lousiana, had been working as an electronics technician at KSC for two weeks before Columbia was brought to KSC March 21, 1979. It was his birthday, forever marking the date in his mind.
Through his many years of working on and with Columbia, Moos like many others at KSC came to see the vehicle almost as a being. During his seven weeks at Barksdale, Moos tried to focus his mind on his positive memories. "Columbia was a good ship. She flew many successful missions. That's what I try to think about most," Moos said.
And Chris Meinert, a KSC team leader on the closeout crew, the team who inserts the crew and closes the hatch at launch, remembered kidding with Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon in the white room just before the STS-107 launch.
Ramon presented a "boarding pass" the closeout crew had made for him. The closeout crew signed it and Ramon took it on board Columbia.
Meinert thought about those moments while he was working with a recovery team in Nacogdoches. "I wondered if any of us would come across the boarding pass. It was such a personal item," Meinert said.
Space program workers said their service in the field was a life-altering experience. Their faith in humanity was reaffirmed because they met and worked with so many people who made sacrifices in support of the space program.
NASA KSC's Ronnie Lawson, who served as lead at the Nacogdoches site, said he experienced many touching moments during his tour of duty.
"It has been so uplifting to me to see people of diverse cultures from all over the country work together for the common good," Lawson said. "In camp I heard Native American and Hispanic music being played and felt in a very poignant way that no matter what our backgrounds are, we're all in this together."
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center