Native student participates in NASA recovery mission

Philip Chien
2/24/04

Reynese Ridley, a student involved in the testing for Shoshone-Bannock's space experiment, has the extremely rare position of working on an experiment which flew on Columbia's last mission, watching the launch in person, and being part of the recovery team which picked up Columbia's pieces after the accident.

Ridley, a Northern Ute, Shoshone-Bannock, is now 21 and plans to become a dental hygienist. But in recent years she was a firefighter, one of the tens of thousands called upon to search for Columbia debris. Ridley says she didn't set out to become a firefighter. "It just kind of happened, there was no plan," she said. "I wanted to move out to Missouri [for a job] and I needed the money for a bus ticket."

Last January Ridley traveled with her classmates to Florida to see Columbia's launch, her first rocket launch."It was exciting, where we come from you don't see a lot," she said. "It just made you feel really good inside. It was a neat experience, more the excitement was how loud it is when it launches, you just feel everything shaking. The thoughts of exploring and discovery going on - it's just a unique thought." One of more than 80 experiments in Columbia's cargo bay was the "More Fun with Urine in Space" experiment which Ridley had worked on.

Ridley was back at home on Feb. 1, 2003 preparing to go to work. She said: "My mom asked me if that was the shuttle [her experiment was on]. I turned on CNN and told her that was our shuttle. It was kind of shocking that that happened - really shocking."

Columbia broke up over Dallas, Texas, spreading most of its debris in a strip 250 miles long and 10 miles wide. The first priority for NASA was to recover the bodies of the seven astronauts. Next was any computers and recorders which could determine what had happened. Third on the list was anything else which could help determine what had happened. But the task was daunting - how to search 2,500 square miles - much of it forests, swamps and other difficult to access regions. One logical choice was the Bureau of Land Management's firefighters who were available during their off season. In addition the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) put out a call for volunteers, especially ones with useful skills. At one point there was a request for experienced horseback riders.

Ridley got her call in mid-February - was she available to go in the field and help search for the debris from Columbia?

She noted: "There were different crews from everywhere. Firefighters from our community went, two crews of 20. We were shipped down to Fort Worth, Texas, and from there to Palestine, Texas."

For a month Ridley and her teammates lived in tents and a warehouse, working six days a week. She said a typical day involved getting up in the early morning, getting gear ready, packing lunch, finding out which area her team was going to search and getting on a bus to their assigned grid. She said "We meet up with our crew and the other crews we were working with. We'd line up side-by-side and walk a grid in whatever conditions - swamp, thorns, fences or crops. Just looking around your area."

Ridley said she was successful in spotting pieces in the field, noting, "It's one piece of solving the puzzle." Each team of searchers had a NASA expert to attempt to identify what was found and whether or not it actually came from the shuttle. She notes, "Some days it was easy, some days it was difficult."

Ridley knew three of the people in her crew at the beginning and got to know her other teammates better during their month together. Ridley says on her four days off she'd: "Just stay around, relax, get laundry done. Go in town, go shopping. I got to see a little of the area."

She said: "What made it fun was the people who were there, there were so many of us. That's what made it an adventure. We were off in different areas. That's what made it what it was - the people there."

NASA tried to show its appreciation for all of the people involved in the search. Ridley said: "They brought entertainment to us in our building, we'd have presentations. The astronauts would come down and meet people. We got to meet them and shook their hands."

While John Herrington had visited most of the camps where the searchers were based Ridley did not meet him until the memorial in Florida. She said, "He's pretty strong, gives other people something to look forward to."

Ridley was just one of 30,000 people involved in the Columbia search operations. No matter how the numbers are given the search was staggering. Each day there were an average of 5,600 people on foot in the field - 256 teams of American Indian groups were involved in the search, including 70 groups from Arkansas and Oklahoma alone. The search involved underwater divers, airplanes flying over the search areas and - most important - a lot of shoe leather. By the time the formal intense search had completed in May the teams had covered 700,000 acres, the equivalent of the state of Rhode Island. FEMA's Scott Wells gave a comparison: "Just the ground operation was the equivalent of one person walking from the Earth to the moon, seven laps around the moon, then back to the Earth and one lap around the Earth and still have three thousand more kilometers to go."

Over 100 federal, state and local government agencies, disaster relief organizations and volunteers worked in harmony without any fighting over who was in charge or what group was responsible for what activities.

Wells noted "this has been the largest search in U.S. history and probably world history in terms of a detailed search operation. "We've had air, ground and water operations," he said. We've had ice storms, I think we had 40 days and 40 nights of rain back in February."

John Herrington was involved in the search operations from the command center in Lufkin, Texas where he coordinated searches from the air. He noted that he wished he had the opportunity to go into the field and join one of the search teams but never had the opportunity.

The net results of the three-month effort was 83,800 pieces from Columbia - 40 percent by weight. Most of the rest burned up during the intense reentry, but some of it has eluded the searches. Pieces were too small, naturally camouflaged, blown off the main search corridor, or otherwise somehow missed. Additional pieces from Columbia will be found by accident, mostly by outdoorsmen and others in wilderness areas. The recovery teams have asked anybody who finds something they believe is a piece of Columbia debris to call (866) 446-6603.

Columbia's debris is stored in the massive Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center, the same building where Columbia was attached to the external tank and solid rocket boosters before each mission. There was a strong desire by the NASA workers to not just put away the pieces in a grave, never to be seen again. Instead Columbia's debris is available to qualified researchers. The team has received 20 requests from groups worldwide designing hypersonic aircraft and next-generation space vehicles. By examining how pieces of Columbia were damaged and the circumstances for how they came apart engineers can develop better, stronger spacecraft for the future. Scott Thurston, NASA's Vehicle manager for Columbia and Atlantis, said, "It's a good feeling to know we're going to try to keep the legacy of research Columbia stood for instead of sealing her up under concrete."

Overall Ridley said about her experience, "It was fun, exciting." She said she was glad she came back to Florida for the anniversary of the accident. "It was nice to actually be here again, complete the circle."

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