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Shuttle Disaster

Shuttle arrives as pieces of a puzzle

The first loads of Columbia's remains are brought to Kennedy Space Center to be reassembled on a grid in a hangar.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 13, 2003


KENNEDY SPACE CENTER -- Eleven days to the hour after it was scheduled to roll to a safe stop on the landing strip here, space shuttle Columbia returned home Wednesday in pieces.

A once-sleek space machine was reduced to truckloads of jagged, dented, melted parts.

A semitrailer truck and a flatbed truck from Lone Star Transportation Co. rumbled over the Indian River and across NASA Causeway. Then it passed the Astronaut Memorial where the U.S. flag no longer flaps at half staff.

If time has dulled the sharpness of the nation's sorrow over the loss of the ship's seven astronauts, Columbia's funereal homecoming brought yet another stab.

"This is not the way we would have wanted to welcome the Columbia back to the space center," said Lisa Malone, a NASA spokeswoman.

The small convoy, escorted by NASA federal agents, rolled through the space center gates shortly after 9 a.m., ending an all-night trek from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where the wreckage is being assembled for initial processing.

From there, it is taken in batches to Kennedy Space Center, home to the engineers and technicians who can identify the pieces and how they fit together. So far, more than 1,600 pieces have been found, and truckloads more are collected each day.

Wednesday's shipment was taken to a barrel-shaped hangar near the landing strip, where teams of white-coated space center workers, some wearing gloves, unloaded the pieces. The goal is to figure out what went wrong by reconstructing what remains of the shuttle.

Smaller items were placed in bubble wrap and rolled in on stainless steel carts. Larger pieces arrived on wooden pallets, most notably boulder-size metal spheres said to be fuel tanks.

Some spheres were dented. One was still partly encased in the mocha-colored mud of east Texas, where it surely landed with a thud.

The clunky remnants of Columbia are testament to the journey they made: shot toward the heavens as an integrated whole, taken through space for 16 days, rudely ripped apart at the edge of earth's atmosphere, flung to the ground and finally brought to the morguelike coolness of a NASA hangar for a clinical exploration of how it all happened.

To NASA, it is "mishap response."

A banner overlooking the 70-foot-tall hangar recalled better times. "We're Behind You, Columbia," it said, the white background covered in signatures from dozens of space center employees who served on the ground crew. The banner graced a fence near the launch pad the day Columbia lifted off. Now it hung over workers as they identified the parts and cataloged them on computers in a hushed, businesslike procession.

A space center security officer stood guard carrying a 9mm submachine gun. About 200 Kennedy employees working six-day weeks will labor to piece together what's left of America's first shuttle.

The parts will be laid out in grids marked with yellow tape. Overlaying that are marks in blue tape mimicking the ghostly outlines of Columbia's fuselage and wings.

Admiral Hal Gehman Jr., chairman of the independent board assigned to investigate the Columbia accident, arrived with the panel aboard a NASA plane Wednesday and will stay for two days.

The team will leave Kennedy for NASA facilities in Alabama and Louisiana before returning Saturday to Houston. The group will work through Sunday, he said, part of a schedule designed to get to the cause of the accident as soon as possible.

Among the group's stops Wednesday was the site where the heat-resistant tiles that cover much of the shuttles' exterior are made.

In his first public remarks Tuesday, Gehman spoke of the need to form a "personal relationship" with the remains of Columbia.

"This is a personal thing for us and (examining the debris) is part of the way we personalize it," he said. Some of the pieces are "surprisingly pristine," he said.

He said the board will seek the direct and indirect causes of the disaster, and to see if "a piece of material" can be fixed so shuttle missions can continue.

But even if such a cause is found, he said, "we're going to want to know why. How did that flaw occur? Why didn't they catch that?"

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