As the search for the wreckage of the space shuttle Columbia begins to wind down, it leaves a legacy of unexpected accomplishments that policymakers will study for years to come, say many of those involved.
In the unprecedented operation, about 14,000 federal firefighters and other searchers have braved hazards such as poisonous snakes, scorpions, toad-strangling downpours and sucking mud as they tramped through piney woods and thickets mined with giant toxic nose-piercing thorns. They have traveled by means ranging from a modified U-2 spy plane to plain old shoe leather. In just 11 weeks, they have scoured, yard by yard, a swath of the Southwest almost the size of Rhode Island.
Defying predictions, they have collected more than 70,000 pieces of the fallen Columbia, or almost 40 percent of its unfueled weight, providing investigators with vital evidence regarding the causes of the Feb. 1 crash. Because the vehicle broke apart at such extreme velocities and altitudes, accident experts had said initially that the searchers would be lucky to find 15 percent of it.
What doesn't show up in the statistics, the participants say, is the outpouring of support from the people of east Texas, where the primary search zone is anchored, the tireless dedication of the search teams and -- the real shocker -- the fact that about 130 federal, state and local agencies managed to cooperate on the project without turf fights or hang-ups over red tape.
"Tragedy though it was, it's also a huge opportunity for us to do some learning," said Amy Donahue, a public policy professor at the University of Connecticut who is on leave to advise NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe on homeland security matters.
"Before they become too rigid to accept new ideas in the new [Homeland Security] department, now is the time to inject these lessons into that organizational and policy decision-making process so that they can gain the benefits of this as a sort of trial run," said Donahue, who once worked as a firefighter in Alaska.
In some ways, the new department faces similar challenges in attempting to meld dozens of federal agencies and operations -- including many that are participating in the shuttle search -- to improve coordination in the event of a terrorist attack or other national emergency.
In other ways, the Columbia disaster was so unusual that aspects of the effort may not be transferable to other situations, officials said.
"There is no 101 book on this," said Scott Wills, a coordinator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
One particular advantage in this case, by all accounts, was that in contrast to most natural disasters, it was clear who "owned" the tragedy. "This was NASA's disaster; they were the victim," one search official said. Instead of fighting over turf and rules, the various agency representatives rallied around the space agency, saying, "Here's what we can contribute."
Beyond that, Donahue said, there seem to be some "success factors" that might apply to other situations.
Among these were the openness of the search leaders, who shared information in a way that garnered vital trust across agency boundaries; and a focus on solving problems rather than elbowing for turf, perhaps because nobody could claim superior expertise in this case. It also helped that the goals were crystal clear from the outset.
A key factor cited by Donahue and others is the highly skilled workforce the agencies marshaled. "These were the best of the best," one search leader said.
NASA's O'Keefe, leading a thank-you tour last week, also praised the local communities for their intense support, which he called "totally unanticipated."
For budgetary purposes, the five-state operation has drawn from a national disaster fund set up by Congress and replenished as required in the case of hurricanes, earthquakes and the like, officials said. The search has cost about $235 million to date, said Charles Horner, NASA's congressional liaison.
Those who took part say they share a belief that they have been part of something special.
"There was something about this disaster that gave every person that worked it a common bond. We couldn't name it," said Milton W. Fairley, a FEMA coordinating officer. The effort melded elements of the disaster culture that variously resembled the search for a missing child or an escaped prisoner, a forensic crime scene investigation, the response following a hurricane or an earthquake and the complex logistics of a troop movement.
There was a sense, one worker said, "that these were fallen heroes, and we were bringing them home."
The sense of common purpose was apparent in a cow pasture near Palestine, where yellow-shirted Forest Service firefighters and other searchers, outfitted in Kevlar snake chaps, hard hats, protective goggles and carrying brush-clearing poles, walked the grid in the midday heat, in a line of dozens abreast, 10 feet apart, through the sandy loam, through cow pies and toward a thicket where the going would get much tougher. Each searcher typically walks nine miles a day.
At the operations center in Lufkin, a 5-by-8-foot acrylic painting depicted the search in the primitive style of Grandma Moses. "I went to the motel every night and worked on it" as a memorial to donate to NASA, said Terri Hoover, a resident of the town of Willis and the assistant to a state official.
Carlton Howeth, who 30 years ago worked at a Texas plant that was building hydraulics and other parts for the space shuttles, is among the thousands helping to pick up the pieces. "It sure was a pleasure to see that thing take off and work," said Howeth, who now wears the uniform of the Texas Forest Service.
In one room at the ops center, using large-format printers named Harpo, Zeppo and Psycho, FEMA has produced 25,000 maps for ground, air and water searchers and accident investigators.
Detailed information on the wreckage is assembled in "the database from hell," Fairley said. A hybrid of several agencies, "you have to feed it every night or it disappears."
Most days, the work goes on from 5 a.m. to 3 a.m., he said.
Further east, on the grounds of a rodeo arena next to a bingo hall in this town near the Louisiana line, the workers have erected a vast encampment of tents, trailers, vans and trucks, and such necessities as a boot distribution shed.
This is an economically depressed area, officials said, with more people working on the search than live in the town. But local authorities have been so eager to help that they "were writing hot checks to pay for fuel for the buses" to transport workers from the camp to the search sites, Wells said.
The diverse search force, men and women, included a large contingent of Native American firefighters and a descendant of George Armstrong Custer. Some wore Columbia Recovery T-shirts that read: "Their mission has become our mission."
On Wednesday, after a day spent walking the rough, vermin-ridden terrain in the hot sun, 1,000 workers lined up in and around the bingo hall where a half-dozen astronauts, along with O'Keefe, space flight official William F. Readdy and top Agriculture and Forest Service officials, spent 31/2 hours signing autographs on memorial photos of the space shuttle, while a group of Mescalero Apache firefighters danced and chanted nearby.
"This is a part of history," said Archie Andersen, a firefighter from Salt Lake City waiting in the line.
As of last week, the ground teams had covered 78 percent of the primary search area; airborne spotters had covered 80 percent of their areas and underwater dive teams are done. With the search in east Texas nearing completion, the operation is shifting westward. Four camps, including the one here, are to shut down by May 5, and the force will dwindle to a few hundred.
Farther west, the search continues, with particular interest focused on spots north of Caliente, Nev., where radar tracks indicated a key piece of the shuttle fell.