Now that the accident investigation is over, NASA has opened up the STS-107 reconstruction hanger for employees and family members to view the remnants of shuttle Columbia. A couple of us from the group went yesterday afternoon.
The hanger, located just off the Shuttle runway is large, white and has a huge STS-107 logo on the outside. It's especially haunting to think that Columbia was supposed to have used that very landing strip only minutes after we all saw those unforgettable images of fiery streaks across the Texas sky.
Inside the hanger are the scattered remnants of the space shuttle. If I had to choose just a few words to describe the scene in there, they would be: eerie, awesome and tragic. Actually, it was a little like going to a funeral viewing. Walking through the huge hanger, following a rope-lined serpentine path through areas of collected debris, the people were very subdued. You'd occasionally see old friends greeting each other with smiles and some laughter, but even that was very low key. There were NASA people stationed at various points, behind the ropes. They had all worked on the investigation in some way or another and were more than willing to answer questions. The slow moving crowd asked a lot of them. Small groups of people would stop and gather, listening intently to stories of the recovery effort, or of structural damage done to the pieces being displayed.
The one thing that really struck me was the forces that must have been at work in the vehicle breakup. Large pieces of aluminum, steel and titanium were ripped and shredded as though they were paper. On the other hand, some of the delicate tiles recovered were in such good condition, they looked as though they could be flown again.
Though most pieces were small, some, especially the landing gear and main engine components were quite large. We heard one of the workers note that these pieces hit the ground at close to mach 2 and were so completely buried that the only way anyone knew anything came down was the mud splashed up on the bottoms of the trees in the area.
I was surprised at a number of things, but one of the most striking was the number of thermal protection tiles that were recovered. Some of them, being displayed upside down, showed signs that they hadn't been torn off the exterior, but had been melted off, from the inside out by the tremendous heat generated by the plasma flow through the inside of the vehicle. In another area of the hanger we saw torn and twisted sections of wing and fuselage that had only tile remnants, showing signs they had been forcefully ripped from their attach points.
The RCC panels from the leading edge of the left wing were mounted on special stands, as close as possible to their original configuration. A couple of workers were describing and showing where they think the foam hit the wing and they were telling us of the different types of materials that were found melted and imbedded into the inside of the panels. They told us that judging from the speed of the breakup and the flow of plasma through the wings and interior, the original hole was no bigger than 6 inches in diameter.
Looking at all of the debris, I couldn't help but think of the times I had been close to the vehicle before the accident. I had been under Columbia in the OPF many times, giving tours to visitors. When I saw one of the burned hatches on display, I thought of the time I was able to poke my head inside the crew entry hatch and take a quick visual tour of the mid deck while the shuttle was at the pad. It was difficult to believe these scattered, burned and torn pieces were from that impressive vehicle.
Leaving the hanger with a sense of hushed wonder and awe, I felt a number of other strong emotions; sadness for the STS-107 astronauts and their families, also for the passing of such an impressive space shuttle vehicle. Strangely, I also felt intense pride in the shuttle program and it's members and joy in the privilege of being associated with such people and being a part of the shuttle team. Just outside the hanger doors, we passed a huge Columbia banner that was laying on a table. Black pens were available for visitors to sign the banner. While the previous 90 minutes had been an emotional roller coaster I had been okay with all of that, until I saw some of the signatures. The one that really put the lump in my throat was "You're home now."
It was a very quiet, thoughtful ride back to the office.