Residents recall shuttle sighting

February 11, 2003 11:00 pm

By LORENA ANDERSON

Though it was before dawn, Glenn Caldwell and his daughter had enough starlight to see the outline of their house and some trees as they walked out onto the lava caps near their Confidence home on the morning of Feb. 1.

It was just past 5:45 a.m. The space orbiter Columbia was scheduled to pass overhead at 5:54, and Caldwell wanted his daughter to see it.

Right on time, the iridescent, almond-sized fireball — 10 times the size of any star in the sky that morning — headed toward them from the western horizon line. The glowing pinkish shape left a thick, dense contrail behind.

Everything looked normal to Caldwell, 48, who was watching his third orbiter re-entry. Moments later, Columbia reached about a 70-degree angle in the sky, high above their heads.

Suddenly, Caldwell and his daughter, Candice, 24, saw a shape about the size of a BB — distinctly separate from Columbia — come off one side, then move out and back. It looked like it had been sucked into the contrail.

Seconds later, they saw another.

He told Candice it looked like the orbiter was coming apart.

Caldwell said he was extremely worried. When the Caldwells reached the house a couple minutes later, the NASA channel he gets on his satellite television showed that the space agency had lost track of the orbiter over Texas.

"I knew it was over with," Caldwell said.

He told his daughter "I'm sorry I woke you up to see a disaster."

Not alone

He was right. Within minutes, people in Texas had video footage of the orbiter shattering, killing the seven astronauts aboard.

Caldwell, an instrument-rated private pilot, went back out later and made notes about what he saw, sketched the shapes and, using his own instruments, calculated where in the sky the orbiter was when he saw it. On Sunday morning, he reached NASA.

He was the fourth Californian at that point to report seeing pieces coming off the orbiter, and more people, including foothills residents, have reported sightings since then.