Boeing Frontiers
May 2003
Volume 02, Issue 01
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Integrated Defense Systems

In search of COLUMBIA

One man’s personal mission


Julio GramajoAs the morning sun illuminated the fields of Corsicana, Texas, the searchers were already at work, trudging diligently through the rugged terrain in their quest to find a glimmer of metal.

These were the men and women of the U.S. Forest Service, flown in from across the country to this town of 24,000 about 50 miles from Dallas. Their assignment: to support NASA efforts to recover parts from the Space Shuttle Columbia.

Columbia and her crew of seven were lost during reentry on Feb. 1, in a disaster that left debris strewn across Texas and Louisiana.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency took the helm to recover the thousands of pieces of the 180,000-pound orbiter to determine the accident's cause. FEMA pulled in federal workers from a multitude of disciplines to aid the effort. At Corsicana, about 40 teams of 40 searchers each were onsite at any given time.

Julio Gramajo, a Boeing Integrated Defense Systems employee based at the Rocketdyne Propulsion & Power unit in Canoga Park, Calif., was working alongside them. Gramajo began supporting the recovery teams at the end of February in his capacity as the Space Flight Awareness representative at Rocketdyne.

SFA is a NASA program to promote safety awareness among those involved with the Space Shuttle and International Space Station. Both NASA and contractor Space Flight Awareness representatives were at the recovery sites to offer moral support to those involved in the demanding search activities.

Recovering Daron's rocket ship

Native Americans comprised about 90 percent of the workers who combed East Texas for Space Shuttle Columbia debris. Boeing Integrated Defense Systems engineer Daron Ahhaitty, who is Kiowa, Comanche and Cherokee, walked with them to lend his inspiration, encouragement, unique background and experience.

Normally located at Huntington Beach, Calif., Ahhaitty provided support to recovery centers in Texas at Nacogdoches, Palestine and Hemphill to identify recovered pieces that no one else could.

That enabled the team at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., to zero in on the parts most pertinent to the investigation.

Daron Ahhaitty (left) confers with Kiowa Firefighter Chief Ronald McLemore

Early on, Ahhaitty discovered an uncle, a nephew and 10 cousins from Oklahoma who were working in this effort. He was able to reconnect with his culture and speak his native Kiowa language.

And, despite his best efforts to dissuade them, his people regarded him with deep respect for his 20-plus years of hands-on Space Shuttle experience.

He had been closely involved with, or worked around, every system and aspect of Columbia. Like all the Palmdale Calif., Shuttle veterans—technicians, engineers and management alike—he had put in many 70- to 80-hour weeks.

During the construction of Shuttles Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour, and all major modification efforts at Palmdale. (including both of Columbia's), he held important engineering authority for making on-the-spot decisions on several end-to-end systems.

"I sacrificed a lot of my life for this," Ahhaitty said. "I could be somewhere else, safe and secure, and making a lot more money. But I want to work on manned space flight. That's why I do what I do. To see this vehicle come back in pieces is very personal.

"This work is very painful; it's agonizing. I've spent too much time on that vehicle not to feel the loss. The first six months of last year I worked day and night on this vehicle. Just like now," he said. "If not for my relatives here, and my being able to vent with them, I could not do this job."

At one point, Ahhaitty visited with members of two Kiowa firefighting units at Hemphill who said they wanted to come down to East Texas and help him any way they could. "They said they wanted to help me get my vehicle back by walking the search grids," Ahhaitty said.

"That is how personal this story gets for me. To me, anything else I may have accomplished pales in comparison to this, that my folks came down from Oklahoma to help me recover my vehicle," Ahhaitty said.

"Not the astronaut's vehicle, not NASA's vehicle, not even America's Space Shuttle Orbiter Columbia, but Daron's rocket ship. That is what they had to say, and that is why I am so touched and proud of them."

—Bob Howard

What began as a temporary, one-week stint for Gramajo became something akin to a personal mission. Accompanying astronauts when they visit a site is a typical task for an SFA representative, and Gramajo knew two of the STS-107 crew members personally, Commander Rick Husband and Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla.

He approached his assignment in Texas with such dedication and passion that FEMA asked him to stay on until the Corsicana search was complete. Along the way, he expanded his role and became an important member of the recovery team.

"I've always tried to increase our [Space Flight Awareness] foothold on mission safety and expand our role from being perceived as just 'posters, pins and patches' to being an integral part of assuring safety and mission success," he explained.

In the case of Columbia, Gramajo's unique background stood him in particularly good stead. While SFA representatives typically come from a communications or administrative background, Gramajo's 25 years with Rocketdyne are linked to the Space Shuttle Main Engine program.

During each Shuttle launch, three of these engines help power the orbiter into space. Gramajo spent much of his tenure as a technician and an inspector in the shop, so he literally "touched the hardware" thousands of times.

As such, Gramajo had a special connection to the Shuttle and the astronauts, which he conveyed to the searchers. He helped develop an orientation package for new crews before they went into the field. The presentation always ended with a picture of Husband and Chawla.

"I gave the searchers my personal perspective," Gramajo explained, "that to us the astronauts are almost like coworkers. I also made a connection between the hostile environment of space and the hostile environment that many of the Forest Service searchers experience in their regular work as firefighters. They could understand our commitment to human space flight because they feel the same commitment when they're fighting fires."

Gramajo was the only Space Flight Awareness representative to go out into the field with the searchers. A typical day would start at 6 a.m. with briefings, followed by seven miles of walking in the field, and the return trip home as late as 5 or 6 o'clock. Searchers wore special boots and leather chaps to protect against briars, and they braved weather that varied from blazing heat to ice storms.

Gramajo tried to accompany a different team each day. In the field, teams split into lines of about 20 people and walked along a grid mapped out in advance.

"We walked a straight line, shoulder to shoulder," Gramajo said. "The line might jump grid to grid, depending on requirements. One day we found 73 pieces of hardware, from the size of a quarter to a payload bay door section about the size of a car door. Other days, you might not find a thing. One day we came upon a newborn calf only a couple of hours old in a cow field. It reminded us of the beauty of life. And we saw a lot of armadillos that looked at us as if we were crazy for being out there with them."

Whenever someone found a piece of hardware, Gramajo made a point at the next break to conduct an impromptu ceremony, thank the finder and present him or her with an STS-107 commemorative pin. He recounted the experience of searching with Native American firefighters and noted that when they found a piece of hardware, they paused for a ceremony before retrieving it to honor the spirits of the fallen crew.

FEMA housed the searchers in their own tent city in a former cotton warehouse with its own unique infrastructure. There were no televisions or radios; leaders posted the daily newspaper on a bulletin board at the entrance. Security was tight. It was particularly frustrating to come away from a day's search with nothing, so the team placed recovered hardware in a cage at day's end so it was visible and could serve as motivation for the searchers.

At night, Gramajo would show a movie with a space-related theme or talk about the Space Shuttle program. He had a flag for the orbiter Columbia that he invited the searchers to sign, an activity that always drew long lines. He even visited the laundry service half a mile down the road to thank its staff for their help.

The days didn't end there. Gramajo often returned to his hotel room to log on and make sure the work he'd left behind in California was still getting done.

He didn't mind the demanding schedule of 12- to 14-hour days.

"I didn't feel like I was putting my personal self aside," he said. "I was contributing, that was my goal. Every minute that we were not searching was a minute for the grass to grow and hide a piece of hardware that could solve the puzzle about what happened to the Shuttle."

Gramajo's responsibility extended beyond the search. He and fellow NASA and search team leaders visited schools, met with the Corsicana City Council and the mayor, rented local high school auditoriums and conducted presentations with visiting astronauts.

He remained in Texas through the end of the recovery effort in April.

In trying to capture what the experience at Corsicana was like, Gramajo recalled what an astronaut said about seeing Earth from space for the first time.

"He said it was the first time he realized we truly are one," Gramajo said. "Here, even though the faces changed and people came and went, we banded together as one in our quest to bring Columbia and her crew home for the last time."

A wide-angle view of the RLV Hangar

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