Spaceflight Now

Sailors recognized for help in Columbia recovery
Posted: August 20, 2003

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut Jim Reilly recently presided over an awards ceremony for Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit (MDSU) 2. The ceremony, held at Naval Amphibious Base, Little Creek, recognized Sailors for their search efforts of space shuttle Columbia.

"NASA is grateful for your help," Reilly said to the group of Sailors. He went on to tell them how he plans to take a part of the command with him, long after the ceremony ends. "On my next mission to space, I will be taking a MDSU challenge coin with me."

While re-entering Earth's atmosphere Feb. 1, Columbia broke apart, leaving a debris trail over 220 miles long that started in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and ended in western Louisiana. Several witnesses, who were fishing nearby the morning of the crash, reported hearing debris hit the water of the Toledo Bend Reservoir, which spans 60 miles long and four miles across.

Directly following the tragic Columbia space shuttle loss, MDSU-2 responded to a request from NASA for search operations and wreckage recovery. A team of 63 military personnel, including active and Reserve divers, Supervisor of Salvage, Supervisor of Diving, and several other Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) personnel, worked with local and national civilian organizations to complete the search project despite adverse conditions.

Three civilian dive teams from The Federal Bureau of Investigation, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Texas Department of Public Safety began diving Feb. 3 based on the witness accounts.

Feb. 14, the Chief of Naval Operations appointed the Navy to command the underwater search effort. The search area was defined by NASA as one nautical mile on either side of the Columbia flight path. A secondary search area extended the original by an additional one nautical mile on either side of the flight path. This produced a water search area of 14.69 square nautical miles.

After two months of intensive search and recovery efforts that extended to Lake Nacogdoches, dive operations were completed April 12 with a handful of recovered pieces turned over to NASA officials as possible shuttle debris. Nine dive teams (four Navy and five civilian) with more than 140 divers cleared 3,100 targets, made 3,019 dives, and recorded 825 hours of bottom time in the efforts to recover key pieces of debris, that might unlock clues to the Columbia crash and prevent future tragedies.