Ridley, a student involved in the testing for Shoshone-Bannocks
space experiment, has the extremely rare position of working on
an experiment which flew on Columbias last mission, watching
the launch in person, and being part of the recovery team which
picked up Columbias pieces after the accident.
a Northern Ute, Shoshone-Bannock, is now 21 and plans to become
a dental hygienist. But in recent years she was a firefighter, one
of the tens of thousands called upon to search for Columbia debris.
Ridley says she didnt set out to become a firefighter. "It
just kind of happened, there was no plan," she said. "I
wanted to move out to Missouri [for a job] and I needed the money
for a bus ticket."
January Ridley traveled with her classmates to Florida to see Columbias
launch, her first rocket launch."It was exciting, where we
come from you dont see a lot," she said. "It just
made you feel really good inside. It was a neat experience, more
the excitement was how loud it is when it launches, you just feel
everything shaking. The thoughts of exploring and discovery going
on - its just a unique thought." One of more than 80
experiments in Columbias cargo bay was the "More Fun
with Urine in Space" experiment which Ridley had worked on.
was back at home on Feb. 1, 2003 preparing to go to work. She said:
"My mom asked me if that was the shuttle [her experiment was
on]. I turned on CNN and told her that was our shuttle. It was kind
of shocking that that happened - really shocking."
broke up over Dallas, Texas, spreading most of its debris in a strip
250 miles long and 10 miles wide. The first priority for NASA was
to recover the bodies of the seven astronauts. Next was any computers
and recorders which could determine what had happened. Third on
the list was anything else which could help determine what had happened.
But the task was daunting - how to search 2,500 square miles - much
of it forests, swamps and other difficult to access regions. One
logical choice was the Bureau of Land Managements firefighters
who were available during their off season. In addition the Federal
Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) put out a call for volunteers,
especially ones with useful skills. At one point there was a request
for experienced horseback riders.
got her call in mid-February - was she available to go in the field
and help search for the debris from Columbia?
noted: "There were different crews from everywhere. Firefighters
from our community went, two crews of 20. We were shipped down to
Fort Worth, Texas, and from there to Palestine, Texas."
a month Ridley and her teammates lived in tents and a warehouse,
working six days a week. She said a typical day involved getting
up in the early morning, getting gear ready, packing lunch, finding
out which area her team was going to search and getting on a bus
to their assigned grid. She said "We meet up with our crew
and the other crews we were working with. Wed line up side-by-side
and walk a grid in whatever conditions - swamp, thorns, fences or
crops. Just looking around your area."
said she was successful in spotting pieces in the field, noting,
"Its one piece of solving the puzzle." Each team
of searchers had a NASA expert to attempt to identify what was found
and whether or not it actually came from the shuttle. She notes,
"Some days it was easy, some days it was difficult."
knew three of the people in her crew at the beginning and got to
know her other teammates better during their month together. Ridley
says on her four days off shed: "Just stay around, relax,
get laundry done. Go in town, go shopping. I got to see a little
of the area."
said: "What made it fun was the people who were there, there
were so many of us. Thats what made it an adventure. We were
off in different areas. Thats what made it what it was - the
tried to show its appreciation for all of the people involved in
the search. Ridley said: "They brought entertainment to us
in our building, wed have presentations. The astronauts would
come down and meet people. We got to meet them and shook their hands."
John Herrington had visited most of the camps where the searchers
were based Ridley did not meet him until the memorial in Florida.
She said, "Hes pretty strong, gives other people something
to look forward to."
was just one of 30,000 people involved in the Columbia search operations.
No matter how the numbers are given the search was staggering. Each
day there were an average of 5,600 people on foot in the field -
256 teams of American Indian groups were involved in the search,
including 70 groups from Arkansas and Oklahoma alone. The search
involved underwater divers, airplanes flying over the search areas
and - most important - a lot of shoe leather. By the time the formal
intense search had completed in May the teams had covered 700,000
acres, the equivalent of the state of Rhode Island. FEMAs
Scott Wells gave a comparison: "Just the ground operation was
the equivalent of one person walking from the Earth to the moon,
seven laps around the moon, then back to the Earth and one lap around
the Earth and still have three thousand more kilometers to go."
100 federal, state and local government agencies, disaster relief
organizations and volunteers worked in harmony without any fighting
over who was in charge or what group was responsible for what activities.
noted "this has been the largest search in U.S. history and
probably world history in terms of a detailed search operation.
"Weve had air, ground and water operations," he
said. Weve had ice storms, I think we had 40 days and 40 nights
of rain back in February."
Herrington was involved in the search operations from the command
center in Lufkin, Texas where he coordinated searches from the air.
He noted that he wished he had the opportunity to go into the field
and join one of the search teams but never had the opportunity.
net results of the three-month effort was 83,800 pieces from Columbia
- 40 percent by weight. Most of the rest burned up during the intense
reentry, but some of it has eluded the searches. Pieces were too
small, naturally camouflaged, blown off the main search corridor,
or otherwise somehow missed. Additional pieces from Columbia will
be found by accident, mostly by outdoorsmen and others in wilderness
areas. The recovery teams have asked anybody who finds something
they believe is a piece of Columbia debris to call (866) 446-6603.
debris is stored in the massive Vehicle Assembly Building at the
Kennedy Space Center, the same building where Columbia was attached
to the external tank and solid rocket boosters before each mission.
There was a strong desire by the NASA workers to not just put away
the pieces in a grave, never to be seen again. Instead Columbias
debris is available to qualified researchers. The team has received
20 requests from groups worldwide designing hypersonic aircraft
and next-generation space vehicles. By examining how pieces of Columbia
were damaged and the circumstances for how they came apart engineers
can develop better, stronger spacecraft for the future. Scott Thurston,
NASAs Vehicle manager for Columbia and Atlantis, said, "Its
a good feeling to know were going to try to keep the legacy
of research Columbia stood for instead of sealing her up under concrete."
Ridley said about her experience, "It was fun, exciting."
She said she was glad she came back to Florida for the anniversary
of the accident. "It was nice to actually be here again, complete