America mourns Huntsville feels deep loss of shuttle

HUNTSVILLE &045; The city that prides itself on its connection to outer space is mourning a loss much closer to earth.

A memorial service for the seven astronauts of the doomed Space Shuttle Columbia is planned for Wednesday noon in the Concert Hall of the Von Braun Center in downtown Huntsville.

Cards and letters have been pouring in to the Space Center since Saturday’s tragic disintegration of the space shuttle over Texas.

The shuttle was on its way back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida after a 16-day scientific mission.

While streaking across the sky almost 40 miles above the United States, Mission Control lost contact with the astronauts some 10 minutes before they were to land.

Immediately afterward, residents reported seeing smoke trails, which turned out to be the shuttle breaking into smaller pieces and falling to earth.

Law enforcement officials have indicated finding debris from the shuttle from New Mexico to Louisiana and Arkansas.

Local residents have placed flowers, cards and notes next to Pathfinder, the Huntsville center’s mock space shuttle exhibit.

Meanwhile, at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, a moment of silence was observed Monday for the crew of the shuttle.

Marshall Center Director Art Stephenson said the center is feeling all kinds of emotions since the disaster.

&uot;We’re shocked and hurting and we continue to grieve the loss of our NASA team. We’re feeling disbelief because we want to know what happened,&uot; Stephenson said. &uot;We’re praying for each of the astronauts, their families and friends and the NASA team who is working to resolve the issue.&uot;

Marshall is playing a key role in the investigation into what caused the shuttle to break up over Texas during its reentry to earth.

Marshall Space Flight Center spokesperson Dominic Amatore said the center manages the liftoffs of the space shuttle.

During the Jan. 16 take-off, a piece of insulation fell from the external fuel tank hitting the shuttle’s left wing. How or if that incident played a role in Saturday’s disaster is now under investigation.

&uot;Marshall also manages the shuttle’s propulsion system, main engines, external tanks and its solid rocket motors &045; key components in the shuttle’s design,&uot; Amatore said.

&uot;Our engineers here at Marshall, along with our technical support team, have been working with NASA officials at Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston since the disaster occurred.&uot;

Training of Columbia’s crew was done at Johnson Space Flight Center.

NASA’s Ron Dittemore, director of flight crew operations, said the investigation would be long and thorough.

Dittemore said as the investigation continues, theories will likely change from day to day. He reported it is possible that the piece of insulation that hit the left wing may have compromised the shuttle’s heat shield, which would cause a problem while it was reentering the atmosphere.

Dittemore said Marshall engineers here are helping NASA officials understand the shedding of debris, the make-up of the debris, its structure, weight and how it would respond when it hit the shuttle.

&uot;Marshall Space Flight Center will also help in analyzing all of the video taken of the Columbia during its liftoff,&uot; Amatore said.

More than 1,000 pieces of shuttle debris have been found so far, including human remains. Those pieces are being taken to the Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, La.

&uot;Our center’s deputy director, Dave King, along with six other officials here at the center are currently involved in the recovery efforts,&uot; Amatore said.

&uot;They are in Texas today.&uot;

King, along with six others from Huntsville have set up communications and support security for the recovery efforts, according to Amatore.

NASA officials say finding pieces of the left wing would be crucial in determining what happened