by Daniel J. Horgan

Using GIS Technology to Locate the Fragments of the Exploded Columbia Space Shuttle

May 15, 20032 mins
MobileSmall and Medium Business

At 7:59 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 1, Darrel McDonald was walking his dog in Lufkin, Texas, near the now well-known town of Nacogdoches. Minutes later, he was shaken by a series of explosions as the space shuttle Columbia broke up far overhead. “I looked up, but above me was only a broad contrail,” says McDonald, coordinator of the Humanities Undergraduate Environmental Sciences (HUES) geographical information systems lab at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches.

Bill Gardner, project coordinator for the HUES GIS lab, was eager to spend that day with his two daughters (to read more about GIS technology, see “Putting IT on the Map,” on Page 114). Minutes after the explosion, though, the Nacogdoches police called. They needed a data acquisition and analysis system to generate maps of fallen debris for the search teams. “They told me [the assignment], and I said, ’All right, let’s go to work,’” he says. Gardner worked virtually nonstop for the next 13 days, sleeping on a cot in the lab for the first five nights.

At the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s request, he programmed a data dictionary for the GIS mapping software and loaded the data fields into 14 Trimble Navigation GPS units. Student and alumni volunteers showed up 20 minutes later. “We were loading the handhelds as they were walking in the door,” Gardner says.

McDonald organized the search teams. “[By 10 a.m.] we had three teams out, and by the middle of the day, we had five,” he says. By day two, he and Gardner, along with Jason Gorgan of the university’s Forest Resources Institute (FRI), had 14 teams dispatched. Teams were assigned to search zones based on data received from police.

When the teams located debris, they logged the locations and other data on the GPS units. Then they returned to the lab where Gardner uploaded the raw data into the GIS system, overlaid a topology and generated maps. By 7 p.m. every day, FRI members compiled the miniature maps and produced one large map of the wreckage trail. NASA and FEMA workers used this map for the remainder of the search.

“This terrible tragedy allowed a lot of people the opportunity to see how important geospatial technology can be in responding to emergency situations,” says McDonald.