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February 1, 2013

10 Years: Remembering the Columbia diaster

Anniversaries of tragedies touch the hearts of East Texans

Nacodogches — Dovetailing anniversaries. Dual tragedies. The horrifying loss of space shuttles Challenger and Columbia will forever break the hearts of Americans because of the lost humanity and denied access to the skies.

The 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, which reached  27th anniversary this year, provokes much remorse.

But the tenth anniversary of the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster holds a special poignance for East Texans. The bulk of the 84,000 pieces of debris released as Columbia dissolved at hypersonic speeds primarily rained down on Texas. (Some debris ended up in Louisiana.)

Seven astronauts were killed on Feb. 1, 2003, when NASA's Columbia disintegrated while descending into Earth's atmosphere. What should have been a wrap-up to a 16-day science mission transformed into cataclysm when the orbiter's wing succumbed to damage sustained during the shuttle launch.

The disaster took place minutes before Columbia had been scheduled to land at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

"It was one of those moments like the murder of John F. Kennedy," remembers Peter Hoheisel, a former Philosophy and English professor at the now-defunct Lon Morris College. "Those of us who heard the explosion or witnessed its consequences will never forget exactly where we were or what we were doing that sad day."

Search teams literally combed the piney woods of East Texas in a  search for debris, bodies, and computer control modules that worked much like black boxes do on airplanes. Parts of the shuttle such as computer modules and doors were immediately located, stored and catalogued.

It was at times treacherous work with potentially explosive window sealants and bolts being discovered among the debris.

At the center of the search was a 45-foot mobile command unit dispatched from Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.

One of the last pieces of Columbia debris was not recovered until August 2011 – eight years after it fell to earth. A drought that forced waters in Lake Nacogodches to recede uncovered a four-foot wide sphere sitting in mud on the north side of the lake. The sphere is theorized to have been expelled from the spacecraft as it hurtled in pieces to Earth.

The disaster was thoroughly investigated by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which discovered gaps in NASA's safety protocol in addition to flaws in shuttle design. These flaws were purportedly corrected before any other shuttles took flight.

This investigation was similar to that of the 1967 Apollo 1 ground fire shuttle and the Challenger launch accident on Jan. 28, 1986.

The Challenger, incidentally, broke apart roughly 73 seconds after it's tenth mission had been launched. There were seven crew members who died.

Much of the coverage of the Columbia disaster centered in Nacog-doches. Literal herds of reporters could be seen in areas of town waving their cell phones into the air to get a signal as they tried to call in developments to their respective editors.

The Columbia disaster was mourned far and wide, inspiring creative numerous efforts to raise money for the children of its astronauts.

One of the more creative efforts involved a Star Trek (The Original Series) revival show on the Internet, using all new actors.

A new Captain Kirk. A new Commander Spock and a new Dr. McCoy.

Prior to the recent relaunch of the Star Trek brand by filmmaker JJ Abrams, this development was viewed by many fans as ground-breaking.

Even former Captain Kirk William Shatner praised the effort for the spirit in which it was given.

Nacogdoches officials have a unique commemoration planned for the anniversary.

There will be a public viewing of the documentary "Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster" at the town's Convention and Visitors Bureau 200 E. Main in Nacogdoches, at  9:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Feb. 1.  

Admission is free for this 54-minute film. Questions can be referred to the Nacogdoches Convention and Visitors Bureau at 936-564-7351.

“Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster is a very informative film,” Melissa Sanford, Executive Director of the Nacogdoches Convention and Visitors Bureau, said in a news release. “So many people were touched by this tragic event, and this documentary helps explain the factors leading up to the disaster and the aftermath.”

The emotional impact of the Columbia tragedy certainly reached Jacksonville.

In recognition of the 10 year anniversary, Professor Hoheisel is conducting a poetry slam revolving around the local disaster. It will take place at 5:15 p.m. Feb. 1 at Phoenix Square Coffee Shop and Deli, 201 E. Commerce.

It's apropos that the professor wants to share the event with as many people as possible. He composed a poem about the Columbia shuttle disaster with the help of others.

"I wrote that poem with my students when I was teaching creative writing at Lon Morris," Hoheisel said.

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