Doctoral students help NASA find shuttle wreckage
Kent Ross and Keith Morris, a pair of Purdue University Agriculture students working toward their PhDs, have nothing to do with the U.S. space program.
At least they didn't before the shuttle Columbia broke up in the skies over east Texas, killing all seven aboard on that horrible morning of Feb. 1.
Sure, they both worked for Lockheed Martin, a huge (125,000 employees) government space contractor.
But at the John C. Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi, they are called “the ag guys.”
Morris, who is putting the finishing touches on his PhD dissertation on remote sensing, is a scientist and an AG 20/20 project manager, doing commercial remote sensing of everything from oranges in Florida to apples in Washington, from cotton in California to cranberries in New Jersey, “and all the corn and beans in between.”
Ross, who hopes to finish his remote sensing PhD within four years, is the supervisor of a science section focused on remote sensing data and quality assessment.
But for two weeks in February, they were just two of the thousands of people dispatched to a 500-mile swath of Texas and Louisiana recovering pieces of debris that could help explain why the Columbia exploded just 16 minutes before it was to land in Florida.
They did a little of everything to aid in the recovery process, including teaching NASA and FBI agents how to use Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to locate and log shuttle debris that stretched across a 5,000-square-mile area.
They worked from sunup to sundown, assisting everyone from sheriff's deputies to Texas Forest Service rangers, not to mention the thousands of federal government agents involved in the recovery.
Using local road and topographical maps, satellite imagery, and computer software, Morris was able to lay one computer map on top of another to show workers how to get to sites where debris had been located.
“We had to develop maps that could show them how to get to these sites and show them what to expect once they got there, whether it be a forest, a swamp, or a field,” Morris says.
“It felt like a military exercise,” says Ross, who spent five years in the Army before coming to Purdue, where he earned a master's in civil engineering in 1998.
“I was a tool for them to use,” Ross says. “If they needed a map of a particular area, or a database of the debris that had been collected, I would provide that information.”
Morris, who calls the exercise the first real test of the nation's Homeland Security Act, says, “We went without really knowing what we would be doing.
“The shuttle is a very complicated machine, made of a million different pieces. When it exploded, each of those pieces was torn into another million different pieces. I think we would be lucky to recover 50 percent of the pieces. Some hit the ground so hard at impact, they could be buried 10 feet underground. They could be finding pieces of the shuttle for a hundred years.”
Contact Morris at Dennis.Morris@scc.nasa.gov
Contact Ross at Kwross@ssc.nasa.gov
|Credits||© 2003 Purdue University School of Agriculture|