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Twenty employees from Langley Research Center’s Structures and Materials and Acoustics, Aerodynamics and Aerothermodynamics competencies helped in the search for Columbia debris in east Texas: (standing, left to right) John A. Loughlin, Lynn D. Curtis, Gerald A. Alexander, Rodney D. Russell, Scott Runnells, Scott Young, Brian C. Cheshire, Michael L. Walker, Jeffrey J. Conover, Charles A. Poupard, George F. Palko and Victor E. Jenkins; and (kneeling, left to right) Arthur G. Ritter, Jaye A. Moen, Glenn A. Brehm, Cheri L. Bailey, Tom Walker, Robert Patterson Jr., Savior J. Giuliana and George Cowley.

Inset: Glenn Brehm, assigned to Corsicana, brought home some of the “Texas-sized” briars common in the search area.

Photos by Jeff Caplan

In Search Of ...

Langley Employees Assist In Debris Collection

Researcher News editor

The search for debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia was the largest land search ever conducted — a combined effort of 1,500 people from NASA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. and Texas Forest Services, not to mention local and state agencies, Texas landowners and volunteers from across the United States.

Add to that list 20 employees from Langley Research Center’s Structures and Materials and Acoustics, Aerodynamics and Aerothermodynamics competencies: Gerald A. Alexander, Cheri L. Bailey, Glenn A. Brehm, Brian C. Cheshire, Jeffrey J. Conover, George Cowley, Lynn D. Curtis, Savior J. Giuliana, Victor E. Jenkins, John A. Loughlin, Jaye A. Moen, George F. Palko, Robert Patterson Jr., Charles A. Poupard, Arthur G. Ritter, Scott Runnells, Rodney D. Russell Michael L. Walker, Tom Walker and Scott Young.

Their involvement was coordinated by Mark Shuart, head of Langley’s Structures and Materials Competency, upon invitation from Johnson Space Center. Shuart reponded by sending teams of technicians. “The Langley technicians have an insightful understanding of the make-up of aerospace systems that we tried to tap into for the debris collection teams,” he said.

Photo of "Texas-size" briarThe Langley employees traveled to Texas in four-person teams, each person assigned to an “Incident Command Post” in the towns of Hemphill, Corsicana, Palestine or Nacogdoches for 10 to 14 days. Their assignment: to assist search teams combing a 2,400-square-mile “grid” for pieces of the Columbia, which broke up during its re-entry on Feb. 1. Specifically, they were there to determine what was a shuttle part and what wasn’t. Anything that was was logged using GPS coordinates, then bagged and transported to Kennedy Space Center.

NASA recently announced that more than 78,000 pounds of material — about 37 percent of the shuttle, by weight — had been delivered to Kennedy for use in the mishap investigation.

All of the employees have stories to tell. Brehm, assigned to Corsicana, found a piece of a wing tip, and Poupard’s team found food packets color-coded for the different astronauts. Curtis’ team in Hemphill found a shuttle tire and mission patches. “It really kind of hits home at that point,” he said.

The employees worked seven days a week from 6:30 a.m. until sundown — approximately 6 p.m. — but the days were much longer, considering some had to drive as many as 35 miles to get to the nearest hotel. They wore hard hats and protective clothing and and carried everything they needed for the day — including water and a 2,500-calorie bag lunch — in a backpack.

Temperatures ranged from the mid-30s to low-90s during the 10 weeks the employees were deployed, which made things even more difficult. Through the work was physical and conditions challenging all the team members said they would do it again if asked.

Brehm said he walked eight to 12 miles a day. “I lost eight pounds,” he said, “despite eating like a horse.” (He named his walking stick Wilson, like the volleyball in the movie “Castaway,” and put a notch in it for every day he was in the field.)

Photo of Rodney Russell wearing search paraphernaliaBailey worked on a special operations team in Palestine that used GPS coordinates to find specific pieces of debris that had been spotted from helicopters, but she also had to traverse some rough terrain. “I did very well,” she said. “I learned a lot about GPS and how to maneuver through the woods, find the pieces and still get back out!”

Many of the team members worked alongside Native Americans who have an employment agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to fight fires or respond to efforts such as the Columbia debris recovery. Their awareness of the terrain helped in the search and assured the safety of the team members — and exposed the Langley employees to different cutlures.

“The diversity down there was just incredible,” Curtis said. “It was an amazing experience.”

The employees also ended up serving as “ambassadors” for NASA, giving out NASA pins and other souvenirs and highlighting the Agency’s accomplishments, even in the wake of disaster.

“That’s a tribute in itself to the astronauts,” Poupard said. “What they would want you to do is make a good thing out of it.”

Brehm echoed that sentiment, saying everyone involved in the search was motivated by the potential of returning to flight. “The quicker we can find these parts, the quicker we can get back into space,” he said. “There was a mission, there was a purpose other than just finding parts.”

Inset: Langley employee Rodney D. Russell models the protective clothing worn by members of the debris search teams: boots, long-sleeve pants and chaps, protective shirts, gloves, safety glasses and a hardhat. They carried everything they needed for the day — including water and a 2,500-calorie bag lunch — in a backpack.

Photos courtesy of Charles Poupard

Photo; caption follows

Charles Poupard (above), head of Langley’s Applied Technologies and Testing Branch, was deployed from March 2-12 to the Incident Command Post in Hemphill, Texas. He brought back the following photos (below), which are indicative of the various types of terrain the search team members worked in. For more photos, visit the Office of External Affairs Special Events Photo Album.

Photo of east Texas debris search

Photo of east Texas debris search

Photo of east Texas debris search

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