A 'CSI nation' hunts for shuttle remnants

From California to Louisiana, ordinary people have scoured the countryside with metal detectors, looking for clues.

Forest ranger Lisa Lewis looked hard at the muddy rocket motor from the space shuttle Columbia, lying inert in a tangle of national forest used as a training ground for war, and thought of her mom.

"My mother lives right under the flight path," she said. "It's a wonder it didn't hit a house and kill somebody."

Then she reflected on the puzzle and consequence of it all, searching for the pieces that could save or doom manned space flight for the near future - and the irony of how the motor was found at all.

The tale, which began with unusual streaks showing up on weather radar screens and concluded after a two-day hunt for debris in muddy woods, is part of a larger saga.

Call it CSI nation.

It may not be an official "crime scene," but large swaths of the country this week were turned into an investigative venue, and with thousands of ordinary Americans as would-be David Carusos. In a week of national mourning for downed shuttle's crew, the quest for shuttle parts offered another way for Americans to try to make sense of the tragedy.

Since Saturday's accident, NASA has collected more than 12,000 pieces of space shuttle debris. The vigilant search along the shuttle's flight path turned up lots of earth junk, too - from burnt toast to what turned out to be a Chevrolet alternator. In Shreveport, La., communications officer Tracy Dossett said an elderly woman ("Bless her heart") called 911 after finding egg yolk on her porch. Were there eggs on the Columbia? she asked.

But the real parts, whether found by ordinary folk or NASA professionals, could turn out to be crucial clues in the investigation.

The 700-pound rocket motor found here doesn't rank up there in importance with the nose cone or that still-missing left wing. But how it was found is as interesting to scientists as many of the shuttle parts scattered from California to the long-leaf pine forests of central Louisiana.

Weather radar data, provided in part by satellites put in space by the shuttle, picked up a menacing orange shower coming out of Texas over central Louisiana Saturday morning. The news flashed: the Johnson Space Flight Center lost contact with the shuttle.

Army staff called Maj. Guy Rudisill. He saw the images and the news, and thought: Could this huge storm be shuttle debris? When they looked closer at the images, what stood out were three larger red spots with energy strong enough to be tornadoes, falling toward the earth faster than the speed of sound. They began drawing up a plan, and a map.

By 4 p.m. Ms. Lewis the deputy district ranger, assembled with a team of nine forest rangers and nine military police officers. They split up in twos on four-wheelers. With global positioning devices in hand, they started their search. After two days of honing in on the coordinates, and scouring the woods with their eyes, one of the searchers spotted a 12-foot-wide hole in the ground, surrounded by trees sprayed with sand, dirt, and mud.

A nearby NASA official was notified, and by Wednesday afternoon, after a lot of digging and removing eight 500-gallon barrels of ground water, the motor emerged from the mud.

It is still uncertain whether NASA officials will find a definitive cause that will save the space program. But one clear thing emerged from the Ft. Polk find. A good deal of the capability to track the weather, and for that matter shuttle debris, is a breakthrough derived from space travel.

The other thing that interests scientists is what can be learned from the trajectory of the pieces. Some of the heaviest and densest parts turned up at the tail end of the flaming star, in Louisiana, and appear to be the engines, according to information released at a NASA press briefing Wednesday.

After going over all the details of how the motor was found again in her mind and out loud, and considering the implications, Ms. Lewis finally thought of herself.

"I'm glad I wasn't under it," she said.

AP material was used in this report.

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