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East Texas Remembers Columbia Tragedy as Final Shuttle Landing Approaches

Debris from the space shuttle Columbia streaks across the Texas sky Saturday morning, Feb. 1. 2003.

Debris from the space shuttle Columbia streaks across the Texas sky Saturday morning, Feb. 1. 2003.

The Space Shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to land at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday, bringing the three-decade-long NASA program to a close and leaving the United States with no vehicle to carry astronauts into space for several years. For many residents of east Texas, the final shuttle landing stirs memories of the Space Shuttle Columbia that exploded overhead more than eight years ago.

Nacogdoches is a quiet, easy-going town, with red-brick downtown streets lined with antique shops and small cafes.

But the sky literally fell here on February 1, 2003 when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart while reentering Earth's atmosphere - something people here will never forget.

“We heard this loud noise and it knocked us out of bed. And you could hear this whirring noise and it landed out in our pasture, a piece landed.”
“It shook the house like a tornado.”
“I didn't even know the shuttle was up there, so I had no idea that it was flying over the house and then we heard it on the radio.”

Later investigation showed that debris struck the orbiter during launch and damaged the insulation that protected it from reentry heat.

A large piece of Columbia landed in downtown Nacogdoches in a parking lot behind a bank. A monument in front of the nearby Masonic Hall commemorates the crew.

Local historian Archie McDonald says the Columbia tragedy left a lasting impression on people in Nacogdoches. “Small town or big town, you hate to see something like that happen. Because in a way, those seven people were representing all of us and we were vicariously participating in space exploration," he said.

One local official who responded to the disaster was Nacogdoches Police Sergeant Gregory Sowell. "I got a call from dispatch and they said, 'We have a problem; we are finding pieces of what appears to be an airplane.' And then I turned on the television and saw where they had lost communication with the shuttle and I knew what it was," he said.

Sowell says thousands of federal and state officials as well as technicians from NASA came to Nacogdoches and other small communities in the area to recover the debris. “There was a flight area, a debris field, the size of the state of [the U.S. state of] Rhode Island that was searched by land, sea and air, and I am talking about people on the ground, within shoulder view of each other, walking," he said.

When the search ended, life returned to normal here, but people have strong opinions about the space program now that the last shuttle mission is about to end. Some say the Columbia tragedy and the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger and its crew in 1986 show that space flight is too risky for humans.

“We have had two of them where they lost all their lives, and I don't think it was worth it for one life," said one man. A local teen agreed, saying, “We have had cameras go out there and we can just do that. It would be better than having to die coming back in.”

But others disagree, saying humans have always had to take risks in order to achieve progress and that astronauts embody that attitude.

“We do everything and spend a lot of money trying to protect them, but they know when they are flying on that thing that they are risking their lives for our country," said one man. A woman on the street ask, “Why should we stop something that we have put so much money into all these years, and then all of a sudden just give up on it?”

But if there is one strong point of agreement, it is that the last shuttle mission should end safely.

“Because it is so close to home here where it happened, that is always on the back of your mind. You keep your fingers crossed and the candles burning," said one woman.

And many people here will be watching anxiously as the Space Shuttle Atlantis makes the last landing on Thursday.