LUFKIN, Tex. - After more than 2 1/2 months of searching nearly 600,000 acres, the extraordinary process of recovering pieces of the space shuttle Columbia is coming to an end.
The painstaking search - which involved almost 6,000 people at its peak in early March - will essentially stop April 30, officials announced this week. The last of the three base camps that have served the people searching huge swaths of east Texas will close May 2.
Only 13 people will be left two weeks later. The mother ship for the operation - the Disaster Field Office in Lufkin - shuts May 10, and the remaining recovery operations will move to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe and other federal officials visited two of the camps yesterday, as well as the Lufkin headquarters. All praised the unprecedented cooperation between the space agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, state and local agencies and the communities surrounding the area where the shuttle fell in pieces on Feb. 1.
"It wasn't just the Forest Service, it wasn't just the federal partners, the state partners, the local partners," said Jim Moseley, a deputy secretary of the federal Department of Agriculture who visited Lufkin yesterday.
"I've heard time and time again that it was just the people of east Texas, and it is to them I really sing my praises for their accomplishments."
The search began immediately after Columbia broke apart on re-entry. More than 70,000 pieces of the doomed shuttle have been recovered in east Texas and part of Louisiana - roughly 37 percent of the orbiter's weight. Ground search teams have covered 78 percent of the designated area, and the air search has covered 80 percent of the grid. Underwater search efforts ended last week.
There are still parts of Utah and Nevada where searchers are hoping to find debris that fell off the shuttle as it began to break up, in areas where radar picked up bits and pieces at the time of the accident.
Inside the Lufkin headquarters, hundreds of workers are still churning out maps of the search area, helping with identification of the pieces found and organizing the entire effort.
Wayne Fairley, the deputy FEMA coordinating officer in Lufkin, said that at a recent meeting, the dozen or so people in the room talked fondly of their time here.
"We all agreed that there was something about this disaster that gave every single person who worked on it a common bond. We couldn't name it, could not describe it but there was something here," he said.
"Even though we all want to go home to our families, we're doing it reluctantly because we think there's more we can do, even though we know it has to end."
Gwyneth K. Shaw writes for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper