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Shuttle Columbia’s wreckage finds final resting place

February 8, 2004

Shuttle Columbia’s wreckage finds final resting place

For NASA engineers, debris’ assembly holds powerful meaning

By JAMES GLANZ New York Times

Sunday, February 8, 2004

Cape Canaveral, Fla. — The first piece of wreckage lifted from the first trailer to arrive from the fields of Texas and Louisiana was a window frame. Just 10 days before, on the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, astronauts had still been looking through that frame at the glorious promise and the forbidding dangers of space, nearly 100 miles over the dark Pacific.

That window frame now lies propped up to the left of the entrance to a modest room on the 16th floor of the enormous Vehicle Assembly Building.

All six frames for the space shuttle Columbia’s forward windows rest on the same low platform, in approximately their original spacing, looking like smashed eyeglasses lying on the pavement after an accident whose consequences are still too horrible to absorb.

Those mottled, mangled artifacts would alone be enough to transform this room into a haunted place, an attic of woe approached only with reverence and a very human shiver on the nape of the neck. But beyond the window frames is much more than that, an overflowing, and overwhelming, repository of all the physical debris that led investigators to the secret of what brought down the shuttle, along with many of the most emotional reminders of what the Columbia was and who rode it into space.

A year after hot gases breached the damaged coatings on the leading edge of the left wing and produced the disaster, NASA has chosen this room as an aeronautical reliquary of sorts, a final resting place for what one engineer called the “eighth soul” that was lost on that bright Saturday morning after the seven astronauts, the Columbia itself.

Officially, the debris, from charred and shattered thermal tiles to the strongbox-like container that preserved magnetic tapes with crucial sensor information, has been gathered in the service of structural engineers and materials scientists who want to study the physics of re-entry into the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. But even engineers who spent months focusing on the cold forensics of the debris say the assemblage brings with it other powerful levels of meaning.

Final resting place

“I think it’s fair to say that the pieces that are out are the ones that helped us most in the investigation,” said Michael Leinbach, the shuttle launch director who led the reassembly of the debris. “But it was not intended that way. For me, it brings back a lot of memories, a lot of crushingly bad memories, but also some good memories.”

Still, Leinbach added: “This is not a museum. This is not a display. This is where Columbia will be for the rest of her life.”

Searchers found nearly 84,000 pieces of debris. Most of those, including the damaged crew cabin, will be kept in storage in the Vehicle Assembly Building and not displayed. But any piece of debris can be requested by researchers in academe, in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or at other institutions, said Scott Thurston, who led the Columbia preservation team.

“Anybody, literally anybody,” Thurston said, “can request a piece of Columbia.”

Artifacts evoke humanity

At 525 feet 10 inches high and covering eight acres, the Vehicle Assembly Building looks impossibly big on the flat Florida marshlands. The dim interior of the building, which is used to mate the shuttle orbiter with its external fuel tanks, has a twilight feel. Tucked into a corner of the 16th floor is the repository, not much more than 100 feet long and perhaps 30 feet across.

After the shuttle windows, which seem to fill the room with a kind of tense unresolved grief, the centerpiece is a patchy reconstruction of the left wing’s leading edge. Black curving chunks of the reinforced carbon-carbon that formed the leading edge have been reassembled like the fragments of a dinosaur in a natural history museum. Held in place by thermoplastic resin forms and white metal stilts, the battered pieces straddle the very section of the edge that was breached.

“This is No. 8 here,” Leinbach said, pointing to a section gnawed to pieces and partly vaporized. “The breach was in the bottom of this panel.”

The bottom is entirely missing, and the inside of all the pieces is spattered with lighter-colored deposits of aluminum and other metal melted by the hot gases that doomed the craft. Parts of the adjacent panel, No. 9, once roughly a quarter-inch thick, had been honed to a razor’s edge by the same gases.

“I’d love to find that piece,” Leinbach said, pointing to the vanished underside of panel No. 8. “But we’re never going to find it.”

In another place, charred tiles from the underside of the left wing, eaten away and striated, were in their original position under a sheet of thermoplastic resin. The striations radiated from the fateful point on Panel 8, giving investigators further confidence that they understood what had happened when the Columbia re-entered the atmosphere.

Other artifacts simply evoke the humanity that perished with the craft. There is a hatch that the crew used to enter Columbia. Four mangled rings from a tunnel connecting the cockpit with the bay. Thruster nozzles. A piece of the nose landing gear with two rubber tires in place. More charred tiles, put back together like a jigsaw puzzle.