Sandia team remembers Columbia disaster

Posted at: 02/01/2013 5:27 PM
Updated at: 02/01/2013 6:50 PM
By: Stuart Dyson, KOB Eyewitness News 4

It's the tenth anniversary of the fatal space shuttle Columbia disaster, and the day has special meaning at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque.

The disintegrating shuttle scorched the sky across New Mexico before falling to earth in Texas. Sandia scientists and engineers went right to work investigating what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again.

NASA flew 22 more missions in the remaining three shuttles after Columbia, and the team from Sandia made sure the astronauts got back safely every time.

Jose Rodriguez was a college intern who earned a place on that team.

"I watched it on the news," Rodriguez said. "Very heartbreaking. About a month later we got the call from NASA to come on down to Kennedy Space Center."

The mission: Find ways to make sure this never happened again, so the three remaining shuttles could resume space flight without debris damage to the heat shield, the cause of the Columbia accident.

The Sandia team developed a laser/camera system attached to the shuttle's boom arm to scan the heat shield after liftoff and before re-entry, and it worked.

"After every mission we would always review," Rodriguez said. "What could we do better? What did we do wrong? And we always got better - better and better - all the way up until that last mission."

That was in 2011. Atlantis performed the last shuttle flight.

For the Sandia team - mission accomplished.

"I have a great amount of pride," Rodriguez said. "It was a fantastic job that we did and I do miss it. I miss the traveling down to Mission Control, and there's a lot of history there."

Rodriguez and the Sandia team are a part of that history.

Rodriguez eventually became leader of that team - just a college student studying computer science when it all started. And now, he's a brilliant aerospace engineer.