American Indians help recover debris from space shuttle accident
HOUSTON - Many American Indian groups got an up-close connection to the space program because of the Columbia accident. Columbia was destroyed on Feb. 1 during its re-entry, spreading debris across East Texas and Louisiana. All seven astronauts were killed. Much of the debris collected in Texas and Louisiana was by American Indian firefighters and volunteers searching by foot.
Two hundred and twenty-six teams of American Indian groups were involved in the search including 70 groups from Arkansas and Oklahoma alone. Each search team had about 20 people, walking side-by-side. A team normally included a representative from the Environmental Protection Agency and possibly a NASA expert to help identify objects found in the field. Many of the searchers wore T-shirts with the STS-107 logo and the words "Their mission has become ours."
Ex-astronaut Mike Lounge visited the Columbia recovery teams in Texas. Lounge is currently a manager with Boeing, the company which built the space shuttles. He was formerly a manager with Spacehab, the company which makes the pressurized laboratory used by the astronauts for most of their experiments.
Lounge flew on the shuttle three times, in 1985, 1988, and 1990. He notes that on his first flight in 1985 the first two minutes seemed to fly by in seconds. His second flight was the STS-26 flight, the first flight after the Challenger accident. He notes that on that flight it seemed to take half an hour for the same period to pass.
Lounge said, "Several weeks ago I went up to Corscanaa, Texas. The debris filed runs several hundred miles through central and eastern Texas. They've got four recovery sites. These things are primarily staffed by the U.S. forestry service, although there are a lot of agencies there. They're really camps. I went up to review the camp and just meet the people in a show of support. It's very interesting; the teams are about 20 searchers. There are about 50 teams, so there's on the order of a thousand people in these camps, coming in for a three week rotation. They go out and spend about 12 hours a day walking a grid. They walk the grid, the figure of merit is 90 percent probability of finding any debris larger than a quarter. They're searching both sides of the ground track plus or minus two miles either side. So it is a really impressive composition.
"The composition of these teams was really impressive too. A different demographic than we're used to dealing with in the space business. A lot of American Indians, and that was really interesting. After I had supper with them in the mess hall we set up a slide show in one of the tents. I had several hundred of these workers in the audience. I showed my slide show of my three shuttle flights and talked about all of the things that went into flying in space. I took some questions and it was really heartening to see the interest. This group of American citizens had never been close to the space program before and they were just very engaged. Just really good questions about all aspects of it. I finally had to cut off the questions and there was one Indian in the back, long ponytail, tough looking guy. I took one more question from him.
He said 'Mr. Lounge I understand NASA has a lot of interest in going to Mars, can you tell me why that is?' I launched off into a lecture about life in the universe and life developing on Earth and why we think Mars had a similar environment at least early on. And if we're going to find life elsewhere in this solar system that's where we need to go. And I finally shut up and he said, 'Well, that might be true. But I think it's because the government heard there was some Indian land up there.' So I fell for that one."
Several active astronauts have been involved in the debris recovery effort including Chickasaw member John Herrington. Herrington was especially popular at public get-togethers signing autographs and talking about his experience in space.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said, "Over the last couple of months over 14,000 people have worked long hours under extremely difficult circumstances with unbelievable weather to get the job done. We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the citizens of Lufkin, Texas which is where the main operations have been conducted. And the surrounding towns of Hemphil, Nacogdoches, Palestine, and Corsacana."
The search for debris in the primary area has completed and NASA is in the process of shutting down the three month, $302 million effort.
David Whittle, the head of the debris collection effort said ,"Thanks to the efforts we've had here in Lufkin and on the Texas corridor and over 100 federal and state agencies we've recovered very close to 40 percent of the shuttle. It's a major, major recovery. It's about twice as much as predicted that we would recover. It's of critical importance to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board."
Scott Wells of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said, "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. We've had ice storms, I think we had 40 days and 40 nights of rain back in February."
No matter how the numbers are given the search was staggering. Each day averaged 5,600 personnel. The search involved underwater divers, airplanes flying over the search areas, and most important - a lot of shoe leather covering 700,000 acres. O'Keefe noted "That's the equivalent of covering every acre of the state of Rhode Island."
Whittle said "We had people walking within 10 feet of each other on a 210 mile strip, four miles wide and they just didn't miss every much. There was an incredible amount of pride in finding things and being complete."
While the formal intense search over the primary search area has been completed smaller searches in specific areas will continue. The earlier a piece fell off Columbia the further west it would land. And the earliest pieces may provide the best clues to what happened.
The coastal search is in hope that something which fell off Columbia as it flew over the Pacific Ocean is light enough to float and the waves bring it up on the beach. Environmental groups which normally walk the beaches to pick up litter or search for injured animals have been asked to keep an eye out for potential debris.
Whittle readily acknowledges "There are still pieces out there. We're still getting 10 to 16 calls a day from the public. Should somebody go out in their backyard and find something that gave us an interest we may go out to do a limited search in that area." Every hunter in Texas will be given a flyer when they renew their hunting license instructing what to do if pieces are found. Posters are being distributed to sporting goods stores in the hopes that outdoorsmen will come across pieces from Columbia. Posters and flyers were also given to the Navajo Nation because of Columbia's path during its re-entry.
The recovery teams have asked anybody who finds something they believe is a piece of Columbia debris to call (866) 446-6603. Whittle said "Depending on the debris, if it's something small there's a good chance we'll just ask you to FedEx it. We've got a number to let people FedEx things at no cost. If it turns out to be something larger, or something toxic they'll send something out to respond to it. They'll decontaminate it."