Space Shuttle Columbia – Feb. 1, 2003
Marshall Space Flight Center is part of investigation
Record Managing Editor
The city that prides itself on its connection to outer space is mourning a loss much closer to earth.
A memorial service for the seven astronauts who died Saturday on the Space Shuttle Columbia is planned at noon today in the Concert Hall of the Von Braun Center in downtown Huntsville. For those wishing to attend, the parking deck on Monroe Street will be open to the public free of charge.
For those wishing to express the loss of the shuttle crew through cards and flowers, they can do so at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. Since the Saturday disaster, local residents have already put flowers, cards and notes next to the center's mock space shuttle exhibit – Pathfinder.
Meanwhile, at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, a moment of silence was observed Monday for the crew of the shuttle. Marshall Center Director Art Stephenson said the center is feeling all kinds of emotions since the disaster.
"We're shocked and hurting and we continue to grieve the loss of our NASA team. We're feeling disbelief because we want to know what happened," Stephenson said. "We're praying for the each of the astronauts, their families and friends and the NASA team who is working to resolve the issue."
Marshall is playing a key role in the investigation into what caused the shuttle to break up over Texas during its reentry to earth.
Marshall Space Flight Center spokesperson Dominic Amatore said the center manages the liftoffs of the space shuttle. During the Jan. 16 take-off, a piece of insulation fell from the external fuel tank hitting the shuttle's left wing. How or if that incident played a role in Saturday's disaster is now under investigation.
"Marshall also manages the shuttle's propulsion system, main engines, external tanks and its solid rocket motors – key components in the shuttle's design," Amatore said. "Our engineers here at Marshall, along with our technical support team, have been working with NASA officials at Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston since the disaster occurred."
Training of Columbia's crew was done at Johnson Space Flight Center.
NASA's Ron Dittemore, director of flight crew operations, said the investigation would be long and thorough. Dittemore said as the investigation continues, theories will likely change from day to day. Dittemore said it's possible that the piece of insulation that hit the left wing may have compromised the shuttle's heat shield while it was reentering the atmosphere. Dittemore said Marshall engineers here are helping NASA officials understand the shedding of debris, the make-up of the debris, its structure, weight, and how it would respond when it hit the shuttle.
"Marshall Space Flight Center will also help in analyzing all of the video taken of the Columbia during its liftoff," Amatore said.
Pieces of the Columbia have been found over a 500-square mile area over east Texas and Louisiana.
More than 1,000 pieces have been found so far, including human remains. Those pieces are being taken to the Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, La.
"Our center's deputy director, Dave King, along with six other officials here at the center are currently involved in the recovery efforts. Amatore said. "They are in Texas today."
"I'm very proud in the way NASA has responded to this incident," Stephenson said. King, along with the other six folks from have set up communications and support security for the recovery efforts."
NASA officials say finding pieces of the left wing would be crucial in determining what happened.