Piece Of Columbia Space Shuttle Found In Texas Lake
MELISSA BLOCK, host: In Texas, the extreme drought means water levels are way down. In Lake Nacogdoches, that decline has revealed a large object: an orb four feet in diameter. And NASA has now confirmed it is wreckage from the Space Shuttle Columbia. Columbia broke apart over East Texas during re-entry in February of 2003. All seven astronauts aboard were killed.
Michael Ciannilli joins me from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He is Columbia program manager, which means he is in charge of recovery of pieces of the shuttle. Michael Ciannilli, welcome to the program.
MICHAEL CIANNILLI: Thank you very much, pleasure to be here.
BLOCK:And tell us what you can about this shuttle piece. Does NASA know what it is?
CIANNILLI: What this is, is a cryogenic tank on board the space shuttle. We have, in Columbia's case, 18 tanks of this size that carry cryogenic reactants - which would be liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen - for power generation.
BLOCK: Now, will NASA now go to Nacogdoches to get this piece of wreckage?
CIANNILLI: Yes. We have some folks from the Kennedy Space Center who are currently in Texas, and they're going to be going out very soon and taking a look at it, and then partnering with the local law-enforcement officials to come up with the best plan to make it a safe operation to remove the tank, but also not to damage the tank any further.
BLOCK: Michael, it's been more than eight years now since the Columbia disaster, and I know there was an extensive ground search after the crash to try to find pieces of wreckage. How many calls like this do you still get?
CIANNILLI: Well, surprising enough, we actually do get many calls every year, folks calling in to identify items they believe are potential items. But actually, approximately maybe 10 percent of the calls are actually items of Columbia.
BLOCK: And how many pieces, total, of the Columbia wreckage do you have now?
CIANNILLI: We've collected a little over 84,000 pieces, which accounts for roughly 40 percent of the entire vehicle.
BLOCK: Hmm. The wreckage from the shuttle is stored there in Florida, and I wonder if it's been pieced together to try to reconstruct what you can of Columbia, and if you learned anything more about the disaster from what you've found.
CIANNILLI: Well, what we've done is when we brought parts of Columbia home, we actually did do a reconstruction as best we could. We set up a grid, much like an aircraft accident investigation would entail, and we did place pieces of the vehicle where they would have been once on a vehicle. We also did reconstruct a three-dimensional model of the wing. As you may remember, the left wing was the source of - the breach in the wing caused the accident. So in trying to understand the cause and then how do you go about fixing the cause to fly again, we built a 3-D model of the wing using all the components found in the field.
BLOCK: I wonder, Michael, if it's a jolt in any way for you still, after all this time - eight years since the disaster - to have a piece like this be found and come to you there in Florida.
CIANNILLI: You know, that's an excellent question, and it really is. The Columbia tragedy was very personal for very many of us that worked on the space program, so it was a very difficult time. And when you have events like this, it does, of course, emotionally make it difficult to process through. We take that one step forward and try to, in honor of the crew and in memory of their name, continue their research legacy. So Columbia, even though we've lost her eight and a half years ago, I think still lives on very strongly today.
BLOCK: Well, Michael Ciannilli, thanks so much for talking with us.
CIANNILLI: Thank you so much.
BLOCK: Michael Ciannilli, the Columbia program manager at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. We've been talking about a piece of wreckage from the Space Shuttle Columbia that was uncovered in Texas as lakes have dried up.
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