The Search for Shuttle Debris

On Sunday, Susan and I decided to go hunting for shuttle debris. I had been inspired by a fellow-DPRG member, Eric Yundt, who reported having seen a tile fragment less than an hour from Dallas in Rice, Texas. We picked up a paper and looked for any references to confirmed debris sightings but most were too vague. And most of the debris hit in Nacogdoches and Hemphill which were too far away to make the round trip in one day.

So we decided to head for Rice, Texas. We easily found the site Eric saw on the I-45 frontage road near the Rice High School. The debris was marked by orange traffic cones and yellow crime scene tape. A local policeman was guarding it. Sometime after Eric was there on Saturday, orders were apparently issued to cover the debris. In most cases, this meant a 5 gallon plastic bucket had been placed over the item.

The police officer in Rice was not allowing anyone close to the debris and would not remove the plastic cover so we could see it. He also was not forthcoming about any other debris locations. Since the newspaper hadn’t been much help in pinning down exact locations either, we were momentarily afraid we’d have to give up right there. But I noticed a van from local TV station KTVT and walked over to talk with one of the technicians. He said he’d been in Kerens a little earlier. There was a lot of debris scattered around there and the Kerens officials were much friendlier, too.

A half hour later, we arrived in Kerens. We shortly arrived at an intersection with a police car and a whole lot of orange cones and crime scene tape. On one side of the street was a large dirt field with dozens of orange cones scattered through it. The state trouper guarding this site said we couldn’t go into the field because they weren’t sure that all the debris had been identified yet. However, on the other side of the street, were two pieces we could look at. He offered to remove the plastic containers so we could see and photograph them.

The first was a partial heat shield tile. The serial number was still visible but the tile was pretty badly damaged. The second piece was a completely intact tile. Small portions of the black, glass-like exterior had been damaged and the white color of interior could be seen. While we were looking at these, a couple of locals came by and started talking about debris that had landed in their yards or at other locations nearby. Most of it seemed to be tiles. However, they said they knew of one aluminium fragment that hit between two nearby churches. We got directions and headed that way.

We found a local policeman sitting in his car near the usual barrier of traffic cones and crime scene tape with a plastic can in the center. Like the state trouper, he happily removed the can so I could take some photos. This piece was a triangular shard of metal. One side had been painted and was now badly charred. The other side was bare metal and had an assortment of broken fasteners on it. The policeman said he’d seen a lot of the debris land. His description was not the view of the white contrails moving across the sky but of white contrails coming down out of the sky towards their town. Considering how much debris there was, it’s amazing no one was injured.

By this time, we decided to start for home again. There was more debris in Kerens but it was all very similar. Mostly tile fragments and a few bits of metal so it didn’t seem worth more time. Have a look at the photos if you’re interested.

The Columbia is Lost

Yesterday morning, just after I woke up, I heard a loud rumbling outside. I assumed this was just a plane coming into DFW airport. The weather occasionally causes them to take a flight path right over our house that can be fairly loud. About half an hour later, I turned on the television and saw the first video of Columbia breaking up. I immediately went outside but it was far too late to see anything. The news commentators kept repeating over and over that the shuttle carried the first Israeli astronaut, implying some connection to Islamic terrorists but I seriously doubt there are many weapons that could track and hit a vehicle at 200,000 feet travelling at 12,000 mph.

I couldn’t help recalling memories of the Challenger from 1986. I had been driving home from classes at UTA when I heard the news on the radio that Challenger exploded shortly after take off. I kept thinking that it couldn’t possibly be correct – the reporters must be making some sort of mistake. By the time I got home and saw the video of the explosion I realized it was true. But yesterday, I knew instantly what had happened. Without the sound turned on, just looking at the words “breaking news”, “Columbia” and the contrail breaking up, I knew.

The worst part back in 1986 was that I was young enough that I still believed there was some chance I’d get off this rock in my lifetime. When the Challenger accident occurred, I lost that hope and knew it wouldn’t happen. We’d be stuck here on Earth for my lifetime. Within days of the accident luddites everywhere were trotting out the same tired, irrational arguments against space travel and science in general; “Space travel is too dangerous for humans”, “The space program is a waste of money”, “Man shouldn’t travel to other worlds until he can sort out the mess he’s made of this one”… I’ve seen several of those pop up again in less than 24 hours after Columbia’s demise.

Watching the contrail on CNN, I also thought back to July of 1999 when Susan and I stood in our front yard and watched Columbia cross the night sky over Texas, leaving a golden, sparkling trail of ionized plasma. I wonder how long it will be before we see a shuttle re-entry again?

The DPRG mailing list was buzzing with activity about the Columbia all day yesterday. DPRG members are located all over Texas (and beyond). They always managed to come up with stuff you don’t see on the news. Eric Yundt noticed that the shuttle debris trail was visible on a National Weather Service weather radar near the Texas Louisiana border and began archiving the images. Ed Okerson assembled the images into an animation that shows the debris trail expanding and descending across the state.

Animation by Ed Okerson using National Weather Service radar data

A later message from David Anderson, a geologist, indicated the SMU infrasound station in Lajitas had recorded the sound waves generated by the shuttle’s breakup. Rather than a normal N wave, the recorded pressures waves were like nothing the geologists had ever recorded before. David said it looked more like the sounds from a ripple fired mining explosion. David has put up a web page with images of the sound waves that were recorded. (he contacted NASA as well, since his data covers a time period after NASA lost telemetry data).

One last thought is what Richard P. Feynman said in his controversial appendix to the Challenger report, “The shuttle flies in a relatively unsafe condition, with a chance of failure on the order of a percent (1 in 100)”. If you ever get the chance, read “What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character” which has the full account of his investigation of the Challenger disaster.