Saying “thank you” seems like a small thing to do, but to the people of NASA it was important to come back and thank the communities which helped them during the Columbia recovery efforts in 2003.

NASA representatives returned to Palestine Wednesday to host a thank-you celebration for the kindness and support they were shown during the 90-day shuttle recovery efforts. The celebration was held at the Anderson County Youth Livestock Riding and Roping Arena Wednesday.

During the program, NASA’s Director of Engineering at Marshall Space Flight Center Mike “Rudy” Rudolphi, presented a plaque to local and state officials for their dedication and work during the recovery efforts.

“It felt very good to come back and say ‘thank you,’” he said.

Rudolphi was at the command center in Lufkin and said East Texas would forever be a part of the NASA family and legacy.

“We have adopted them as the NASA family and it is hard to think about the shuttle without remembering the hard work and dedication of the communities here,” he said.

Rudolphi explained when Columbia came apart in the skies over East Texas NASA was at its lowest point ever.

“For 15 years we had flown 80 flights with no serious concerns and then to have this tragedy,” Rudolphi said. “ On Feb. 1, 2003, we lost one of NASA’s favorite toys and seven of our very close and dear friends.”

The people of East Texas were an encouragement to NASA, Rudolphi said.

“I was told by one person in East Texas, ‘go and do your job, we are behind you all the way,’” Rudolphi said. “You are part of the success of the space program now and forever.”

Others in the space program wanted to come and show their gratitude to the community as well.

“We want to say thank you because without your help and support we would have not been able to return to flight and you are a big part of that success,” said Megan McArthur, an astronaut and assistant mission specialist. “It seems like such a small thing to do to give a simple thank you but means so much for us to come back and say thank you for your help and support.”

McArthur visited several of the communities where the recovery efforts took place and was overwhelmed with the welcome she received.

“I was impressed with the hospitality, welcome, and assistance we received in a really trying time,” McArthur said. “And I wanted to come back and recognize the success we had because of that support by the community.”

McArthur and several of her co-workers who visited the reconstruction site in Florida, were amazed at the attention to detail the citizen’s of East Texas had in the recovery effort.

“There were little bits of straws that the crew used that were just inches they collected because they wanted us to have everything,” she said. “They really put their hearts into the recovery effort.”

Randy Wade, NASA Test Director of Shuttle Process Integration/Launch and Landing at Kennedy Space Center, was one of the site managers for the Palestine Incident Command Post for the shuttle recovery effort.

“I remember when I first got here to this very arena,” Wade said. “It was cold, wet, rainy and there was mud up to our knees in this very arena.”

He explained he would not trade his fantastic experience for the world.

“I was amazed at the amount of support we received,” Wade said. “People were volunteering us places to stay. It struck me as to how eager people were to give of themselves.”

And it was that giving spirit which kept the crew going.

“We were told we would find less than 10 percent of the orbiter but we recovered 39 percent, over 84,077 pieces totaling 84,000 pounds, and it was because of the encouragement and inspiration of the people in the community that kept pushing us on when we were just so tired that made that happen,” Wade said. “And that is what got us back into space.”

He added it was a privilege for him to come back and speak.

“I am just an ordinary guy who surrounded himself with extraordinary people,” Wade said. “What made me really want to come back and say thank you was a comment from one of the astronauts who was about to go up on the STS 114.”

Wade said they were in a morning briefing with the crew before the launch and as they were leaving the shuttle commander turned and said “thank you for what you do and for giving us a safe shuttle to fly.”

“It was that statement which made me want to come back and say thank you because without the community support we would not be able to fly again,” Wade said. “I just can’t say enough about the local law enforcement and citizens, it really is true that people are really at their best when things are at their worst.”

Dr. Jan Davis, a retired mission specialist who flew on three missions, wanted to be a part of the celebrations.

“I was impressed with the people and the huge difference it made in making the recovery effort possible,” Davis said. “It is neat to get to come back and thank the community, especially after we have flown because they helped us get back into space.”

Davis is no stranger to East Texas, she spent some of her youth in Waco and received fruitcakes from her grandmother in Corsicana.

“I always knew about East Texas and the warmth and hospitality,” she said. “And it was that hospitality and the personal assistance that provided healing.”

She added it was the wonderful spirit of support that got them through.

“We would not have been able to return to flight without the hospitality of the community — feeding, housing, and helping us,” Davis said. “We just would not have been able to return to flight without your help.”

City, county and state officials spoke to show their appreciation to NASA as well.

“We were happy to help and would have assisted in every way possible even without a thank you,” Palestine Mayor Carolyn Salter said. “We were happy to host you.”

Anderson County Judge Carey McKinney reflected on the way the city, county and other agencies came together to work as a cohesive unit during the tragedy.

“I am very proud of the way we pulled together and of the relationships we established,” he said. “We were a team and rose to the occasion and made East Texas shine.”

State Senator Todd Staples, R-Palestine, thanked NASA for its accomplishments and saw the gathering as a way to pay tribute to the crew of the Columbia.

“This forever changed East Texas,” Staples said. “And there are many monuments constructed and that will be constructed in the future to ensure the memory of the crew of the Columbia is kept alive for all generations.”

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