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Trail of Tragedy
High-tech maps aided shuttle Columbia recovery effort

On February 1, 2003, Jerry Ross, a senior U.S. astronaut, waited at the end of a runway in Florida to welcome the space shuttle Columbia crew back to Earth.

The greeting never happened.

A day later Ross looked out on a sea of grim faces in Lufkin, Texas, a city where pieces of the doomed spacecraft slammed into the ground. The debris field left by the breakup of the shuttle stretched 300 miles (500 kilometers).

With an alphabet soup of agencies on hand—among them NASA, FEMA, EPA—Ross, who would help lead NASA's search effort, feared chaos. But in coordinating the search, NASA and FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) had a solution to the chaos in the form of another acronym: GIS, geographic information system. Using GIS, mapmakers can add to the grid of a base map various layers of data—like the location of roads, elevations, population densities, or, during the shuttle search, the locations where pieces of wreckage were found. At recovery headquarters in Lufkin, operators used GIS to generate custom maps to guide the "eyes on the ground": thousands of Forest Service firefighters walking in lines to spot debris.

"It's the first time GIS has been the hub of a disaster recovery operation," says Ron Langhelm, GIS database coordinator for the three-month search. "The entire search effort revolved around it."

GIS software did more than generate maps and help direct the search effort—it tracked overall progress and created computer models, based on radar or other data, predicting where more debris was likely to be discovered.

An array of maps poured out of the GIS area at the Lufkin headquarters. "There were days when we produced over a thousand hard-copy maps on computer printers," says Gerco Hoogeweg of ESRI, one of the companies providing GIS software. Most were field maps to help direct the firefighters, who canvassed a total of 700,000 acres (300,000 hectares) of often treacherous terrain. "The people out walking the ground, finding the wreckage, did an admirable job," Hoogeweg says. "They had to walk a straight line and if there was a swamp in the way, they just kept going."

The search team recovered nearly 40 percent of Columbia, logged the finds in the GIS database, and later took the pieces to the Kennedy Space Center for analysis. None of Jerry Ross's initial fears about the search have come true.

Says Ross, "If you'd told me at the beginning of the search that we'd find even 25 percent of Columbia, I'd have said you were too optimistic."

Now the optimist is Ross, a seven-time shuttle veteran. With the cause of the crash having been determined and the report issued, Ross is hopeful another shuttle will fly late this year.
—Chris Carroll

Web Links

Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB)
Access all six volumes that make up the final report about the Columbia space shuttle disaster.

Geographic Information Systems
Created by the U.S. Geological Survey, this site provides detailed description of GIS's many uses and applications.

Free World Map


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