Shuttle Report Reminds East Texans of Columbia Disaster

(KLTV) - Investigators say NASA's lack of vigilance over safety had as much to do with the space shuttle Columbia disaster as did the piece of insulation that broke off its fuel tank during launch. In its final report, the Columbia accident investigation board found "persistent, systemic flaws" in the space agency -- including lax safety procedures, a culture driven by flight schedules, and operations starved of funding. It warned that failure to fix the problems could lead to another tragedy. Spouses of the astronauts who died have been briefed on the report. And the husband of one astronaut calls the report "extremely thorough."

The event almost seven months ago also touched the lives of East Texans.  A Tyler doctor captured eight heartbreaking snap-shots of Columbia's demise. "I didn't want the families to be hurt by these images," says Dr. Scott Lieberman. An East Texas mother watched as some of her son's fellow astronauts wouldn't make it back home. "Why couldn't they have lasted just a few minutes longer," says Billie Ruether. But, both Nillie Ruether and Scott Lieberman were forever changed by the disaster in our East Texas skies. "It was a day of television," says Ruether. "I tried to call my son, but it was impossible to get a hold of him and I didn't talk to him for a week after and yes, I will remember it."

"That day was quite emotional just because of my interest in the space program and the tragedy in and of itself," says Dr. Lieberman. The pictures Dr. Lieberman took that February morning were supposed to be of the shuttle coming home to earth safely. Never did he imagine his photos would show the world the last moments of Columbia. "We were so caught up in the whirl wind of the event that frankly it took a little time for the other issues of the event to settle in," says Dr. Lieberman. "and for me, one of those times was when the time magazine article came out and it kind of hit home again."

For Billie Ruether, the Columbia tragedy hit home immediately, not just because debris was scattered across East Texas, but because her son, astronaut Jim Reilly had flown a mission with Michael Anderson, one of the seven shuttle victims. "It was tragic and I knew personally some of the astronauts on Columbia and it was difficult and particularly difficult for my son, they are all an extended family," says Ruether. And a NASA family these two East Texans hope will endure even after the tragedy.