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NASA’s Columbia material search enters eighth week

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Carol Grey Honza
Special to The Ellis County Press

Don't be alarmed at the sight of low-flying helicopters in the Ellis County area!

The helicopters are conducting additional air search efforts, as NASA specialists review a grid area for potential material from the lost Columbia space shuttle.

Eight helicopter crews are relocating at the Ennis Airport this week for a concentrated search tour of the Ellis County area.

'We are pleased to provide a facility for the recovery work that is being done,' said Steve Howerton, city manager for Ennis.

According to U.S. Forest Service Public Affairs Officer Gay Ippolito of Lufkin, search efforts began when various federal, state and local agencies began responding to calls from the public reporting potential space shuttle material shortly after the Columbia broke up over Texas Feb. 1.

'As we enter the eighth week of search operations, air and ground crews have found and recovered approximately 23 percent of the shuttle by weight, according to NASA officials,' Ippolito said.

'The Columbia search area covers a 10-mile wide by 240-mile long corridor from Ellis County to Toledo Bend Reservoir,' she said.

As of March 21, 1.3 million acres have been covered by air, with more than 900 pieces of shuttle material recovered during the air missions.

Scott Fry of the Department of Agriculture's U.S. Forest Service is the Ennis helibase operations manager and on-site coordinator for all phases of the helicopter crew operations at the Ennis Airport.

Fry, who is from the Bridgeport-Decatur area, handles duties such as contracting helicopters thro-ugh government resour-ces, coordinating-helicop-

ter crews, arranging crew lodging, maintaining ground crew operations, maintenance, refueling and crew briefings.

Crews consist of the pilot, helicopter manager, a NASA specialist observer and a helicopter crewmember.

The pilot maneuvers the aircraft, according to pre-determined grid mapped areas, while the NASA specialist and helicopter manager search through high-powered binoculars for materials in the grid area.

Once located, material is identified by the NASA specialist as possible shuttle material, and a determination is made by the pilot if a safe landing is possible for the safe recovery of the material.

If possible, the material is then recovered, its location documented and the material is bagged for shipment to Florida.

If it is determined no safe landing is possible, the grid map is marked and ground mission specialists are notified to move in and recover the material.

Search teams will continue the job of locating missing materials from the shuttle wreckage as long as necessary to determine the cause of the shuttle disaster.

On one of the first-day searches in Ennis, crews were met with a cold, rainy day. Ground temperatures hovered around 49 degrees.

Even with the appropriate apparel, crewmembers were notably chilled as evening closed in and the last of the helicopters expelled the weather-beaten crew.

'We're hoping for warmer days and sunny skies, for better search conditions in the remaining days,' said one crewmember, as he departed in the dark clouds and cold rain.

The shuttle material, once collected, is ultimately packed up and sent to Cape Canaveral, Fla., where it is reassembled at the shuttle landing facility at Kennedy Space Center in a giant warehouse.

There, the master grid is laid out on the warehouse floor in the shape and size of the Columbia shuttle.

Each recovered piece is carefully placed, like part of a puzzle, to help put the shuttle back together.

'We are all anxious to bring as much of the shuttle home as we can,' said NASA's Glen Lockwood, ground operations manager of the Kennedy Space Center.

During air operations, obstacles such as trees, power lines, barns and buildings, or scaring livestock hamper search efforts.

Aircraft stay 800 feet above cattle, horses and chicken houses to avoid frightening the livestock and animals.

Some material may be hidden under vegetation or may be imbedded in mud, making air recovery more difficult.

'Power lines are a major source of concern,' indicated one of the crewmembers.

Julio Gramajo, Space Flight Awareness administrator for quality and system safety for Boeing, who is a key figure on hand for the duration of the air recovery program, said, 'The truth is, this is America's Space Program, and we are all America.

'I have never been so proud of America and to be an American, as I have been these last few years of my life.

'God bless America,' he proudly concluded.

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