SFA students share memories of their big role in Columbia recovery

Published: Jan. 31, 2013 at 11:21 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 1, 2013 at 2:55 AM CST
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NACOGDOCHES, TX (KTRE) - Within hours of the Columbia shuttle crash, a group of Stephen F. Austin students created the first maps of the shuttle’s path. They were the first responders using GPS tracking. They helped discover thousands of pieces of debris throughout the investigation.

"It doesn't seem like it was that long ago. 10 years has passed," Tred Riggs said.

Memories were triggered of his experiences as he looked over maps of space shuttle debris Thursday. He and several other SFA students began recording the shuttles path in Nacogdoches County, Sabine County, and San Augustine County that unforgettable Saturday morning.

"We gathered up some computers and the plotter. We went over there and set up a field mapping unit for them; and we started developing grids for their search crews and mapped out the debris for the next two weeks," Riggs said.

SFA geography professor, Dr. Darrel McDonald says within the first hour of hearing the crash, his students were in the laboratories producing the first maps used to collect debris.

"Pieces of debris were so plentiful and reports kept coming. Then they started marking them on the ground and came up with some other procedures on how to collect them carefully and with documentation," Dr. McDonald said.

Students and professors worked closely with the FBI during the investigation. Many worked 18 hour days for the first two weeks.

Riggs said, "All this data was coming in from the GPS units. We were able to process the information and develop new maps everyday for the search crews, and with those search grids we were able to block out where they searched at, and what needs to be searched, and where they found the debris."

A decade later, Riggs is still amazed how much debris was found using GPS tracking.

"It was one of those coincidences of fate where you had the shuttle break up over an area that had a university that had a concentration well established for over a decade in the geospatial technologies," McDonald said.

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