On the 10th anniversary of the loss of Columbia, it seems like forever ago. But as I dare to venture into my heart and remember the emotions during those weeks and months after, it seems like yesterday. Why? Because it changed me.
My published thoughts from 2003:
"Surprisingly, I had not really been following the flight - seems I was too busy filtering through emails to take time out and read the daily status reports. What I found out later was how much I wish I had known Rick Husband … What an incredible leader, pulling together such different people from different backgrounds, and different religions to make what has been heralded as one of the best teams ever, even outside of NASA. The more I learned about Husband and his family, the more I wanted to live my life like him. Christianity is always somewhat controversial in a science community like ours. But Rick lived large, not by being adventurous, but being so open and public about his faith … Columbia woke me up and is still teaching me to enjoy every moment life has to offer. Don't get too busy and skip over the little things, the very things that caused us to choose this career".
It's funny how within my career where God is so taboo, I found the inspiration to show off my relationship with God more publicly.
Back to Columbia - the images all around us hurt and yet comforted us - the makeshift extraordinary memorial in front of JSC, stores running out of flowers, signs in front of EVERY business showing support, the phone calls, the offers to bring us casseroles (that one always surprised me most). But I needed something - I needed to feel something different, feel like I (not everyone else) was doing something to help.
I gained closure by joining in the search for debris - even if it was only for one weekend. It took me seven weeks to get my way into a camp. Off-site personnel were not asked to help and there were no avenues to do so. So I called around until I found a operations center that would let me come. I agreed to sleep in my tent in the area designated for the medics. It was the most grueling 2-1/2 days I have ever experienced (and I was playing professional football at the time and quite fit!). You walked straight through, in your line - didn't matter what was in front of you. You climbed over trees, under brush, and even through mud and swamp. And you did it eleven hours a day. I found a new respect for the yellow shirts - well, I never knew who they were until I descended on the tin city built up outside Nacogdoches . I suppose this is where my love for reality show cultures was born (loggers, gold miners, moonshiners, etc...). I am fascintaed by these completely different ways of life. I was honored to walk along side these Americans, making the sacrifices they did on a daily basis.
Sitting down for my first lunch out in the woods on day 1 of my search filtering through the brown bag we picked up at 5am, I was told "You don't want to eat that." After asking why, it was explained to me that it would become a problem when I needed to use the bathroom - you just squatted out there wherever you were when walking the line. Certain things so thoughtfully packed in those bags were just not meant to be eaten. I cherish the sweatshirt I bought at the camp - they have one printed up at every "event". I even have the Columbia Recovery Team ball cap - I am wearing it today.
Back to the search, though. I needed to be a part of it - I needed to help pick up the pieces of our shattered hearts.
I asked what I was looking for. I was told it can't be described, you will just know it does not belong there. Almost immediately I found two large pieces of one of the Main Engines. I knew it didn't belong. But it was black, looked old - others said it wasn't anything. And then I saw the fresh, raw metal exposed from it shearing apart. As with most things I do, I knocked a grand slam at my first at bat - and it was all downhill from there. ;) I did find more stuff and helped identify many other things we found (we didn't have a NASA liaison on our strike team for some reason). We were required, the second we saw something, to yell "FIND". That way there was no time to make a poor decision and slide something into your pocket - kept everyone honest. It was stunning how few steps the line took every time the word penetrated the air. And holding those tiny watermelon seed sized pieces of Space Shuttle tile in your hand made you realize how insignificant we really are. I didn't have travel to space to learn that one... ironic.
I have my snake chaps (they broke and I got the supply room guy to level with me and admit he would just throw them away), my walking/smacking brush stick, my hard hat, and the very gloves that touched every piece of Columbia I picked up.
I finally finished this poem a year after my stay at the Nacogdoches Incident Command Post.
at first site
lit up like a lamp
larger than life
a massive grid
covered the walls
it takes a grip
then the heart falls
a shocking reality
I had not yet felt
such a tragedy
those cards we were dealt
at first you know
not what you are looking for
next thing you know
you continuously watch the floor
brush so thick
you must break to pass
every square inch
searching for any mass
left and right
every few feet
such a sad sight
looking down at my hands
realizing what they touched
I woke up from my trance
oh, the reality hurts so much
I keep Columbia and what I learned from it close to me every day - not intentionally, but it is part of my cratered surface. Like the moon, things come at me, hit me - and they leave an impact that forever change me.
On the first year anniversary of Columbia, I was fortunate to be involved in the Superbowl XXXVIII Pre-game Show honoring Columbia. You can read about it here.
My original tribute site (a composition of the editorial cartoons published) can be seen here.
The newly released song 16 Minutes form Home sung at this mornings Day of Remembrance Ceremony at KSC. Listen to it - Feel it - Love it -Buy it!