LUFKIN, Texas - Astronaut John Herrington flew on the STS-113 shuttle flight last November. The next flight was the STS-107 mission on the shuttle Columbia. Columbia broke up during its re-entry on Feb. 1, scattering debris over 2,000 square miles. Over a three month period an intense search recovered over 84,000 pounds of debris. The search effort involved over 30,000 people, primarily Native American firefighters.
"I turned on the NASA channel to watch the entry and within a minute or two knew something big had happened," Herrington recalls. Normally there's plenty of talk between the shuttle and the ground with mission control updating the shuttle's commander. But that day communication was suddenly cut off at 8 a.m. CST. "The amount of silence to me spoke volumes. That's what got my attention - the quiet."
Herrington was ready to do whatever he could do to help and was assigned to work in the operations office in Lufkin, Texas coordinating the helicopter searches.
Herrington says his job at the command center kept him busy and he never got the opportunity to join the searchers in the field either on the ground or in the air.
"I would have loved to have gone out in the field and walked the line but I just had a huge job to do," he said.
Helicopters could cover four times as much land as the search teams. The helicopters were sent primarily to areas where winds could have blown lighter pieces of debris away from the main search corridor. If somebody in a helicopter spotted something unusual a ground team could be dispatched to that area.
The many astronauts involved in the search effort spent much of their time meeting the volunteers and thanking them for their incredible effort.
"A good portion [of the people walking the line] were fire crews, and a good portion of people who fly fires in this country are Native Americans," Herrington said. "I could show them the respect and honor they deserved because they did a phenomenal job. It was amazing. I heard 89 percent of the people walking the debris line were Native Americans. What was neat about it was they treated it with a reverence that a lot of people didn't expect. And people who aren't Native would see this and how much they held the pieces they would find in reverence. These were not inanimate objects they were finding, these were very, very living pieces they had a connection to. I told them, here's a group of folks who for centuries had a very intimate connection to the sky. They are a part of what's going to return us to flight, they're now part of the space program and what we're doing."
Not surprisingly many of the volunteers wanted to meet Herrington.
"I don't know how many autographs I signed, how many people I thanked. For a while I would do four or five autographs per person, personalized. Just to say thanks for what you're doing - because you're the reason why we're going to fly again, because you're helping solve the puzzle."
That's no exaggeration. The pieces from Columbia have been reassembled in a hangar at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. They clearly show how the left wing is much more heavily damaged than the right wing. The leading edge of the left wing has been reassembled on a Plexiglass platform showing clearly where the 3,000-plus degree heat during re-entry breached the wing. Even missing pieces help tell the story - much of the left wing is missing not because it was missed during the search operations but because it burned up due to the intense heat.
"I just tried to make sure I would talk to every camp - I went to Nacogdoches, Hemphil, Palestine, and Corsacana - the four major camps out there. It varied on how many Native folks were in each one. There were crews who came through that I didn't see. I knew there were an incredible number of crews. I wanted to go out and see people. It was my honor and privilege to be there."
The search effort was the largest in U.S. history, and possibly the largest search ever.
The seven members of the STS-107 crew were Commander Rick Husband, pilot Willie McCool, mission specialists Kalpana Chawla, Mike Anderson, Dave Brown, and Laurel Clark, and Israeli payload specialist Ilan Ramon. McCool, Brown, and Clark were part of Herrington's astronaut class. Herrington knew all of the astronauts, especially Dave Brown since they were both assigned to help other crews prepare for their launches before they were assigned to their first flights.
Has Herrington thought about the fact that it could have been him?
"It could have been anybody [in the astronaut office]. You wonder about it. You love what you do, you recognize the risks involved." He added with a small chuckle "But it will never happen to you." On a more serious note he said "What's hardest is not for me, but for my family - my parents. It probably hit harder there than it did for me in terms of the recognition it could be me. It hit me very, very personal. But in terms of 'it could be me' my mom probably more so."
While the formal intense recovery of debris from Columbia in the field has ended there's still plenty of debris which may not be found for years because it's been covered by plants or in an inaccessible area. Much of the debris will be found by accident. NASA still gets several calls each week from people who believe they've found something from Columbia. The recovery team has asked anybody who finds something they believe is a piece of Columbia debris to call (866) 446-6603.