Day Tripping – Hemphill’s NASA Museum “Remembering Columbia”
In February, 2003 Hemphill Texas became one of the most newsworthy sites in the nation for months. Overnight 10,000 people came to the town with a population of 1,000. Eventually 25, 000 people would come to Hemphill. The event was the recovery of debris from the reentry explosion of STS 107, the space shuttle Columbia, coming home from its 29th mission.
Eight years later, January, 2011 the Patricia Huffman Smith NASA Museum was opened in Hemphill as a memorial to the seven astronauts and two Texas Forest Service employees whose lives were lost.
The museum is a nice drive of about an hour and a half north of Orange on Highway 87. In the spring with trees and plants beginning to bloom it is a relaxing trip. Other times of the year are as unique. Highway 87 has twists and turns and hills and valleys.
In Hemphill the museum is adjacent to the library on Sabine Street, as Highway 87 is named in town. There is a small shuttle replica in front of the museum.
The museum is a 3,400 square foot facility with exhibits relating to all of the space shuttle missions. There is a special section with items from the seven astronauts on display. Included in the section is a display honoring the two Texas Forest Service employees whose lives were lost when their helicopter crashes during the recovery effort.
The Columbia was the original shuttle and had completed 28 successful missions. STS 107 was the 29th mission of Columbia. After reentry at an altitude of 200,700 feet the shuttle broke apart with a loud explosion that was heard and felt from Central to East Texas. Debris was scattered over a four mile wide and 22 mile long area of Sabine County. The cabin of the shuttle and the remains of the seven astronauts were recovered by searchers headquartered in Hemphill.
There is a video that is played for visitors to the museum that related the search efforts and has statements from Sabine County residents. The story of the recovery is one of compassion by an entire citizenry. People opened their homes to strangers so that they would have a decent place to stay while the search was ongoing. The local undertaker dressed in his best suit and took his regular hearse to the woods to recover remains of the astronauts in a dignified manner. When he thought enough .was not being done, he enlisted his friend the pastor of First Baptist Church, to go with him and conduct a prayer service when they recovered remains. They began to call it the “Chapel in the Woods”. One lady wanted to contribute food, but had very little. She gave three apples, all she had. Another gave a sack of potatoes. The story of how Sabine County went far above normal cooperation is well told in the short documentary.
One of the museum docents is Orange native L. J. Scribner. Scribner is very knowledgeable about the shuttle missions and is an excellent narrator of the Columbia recovery efforts.
“I’ve been here about three years, I enjoy what I do and it keeps me from fishing too much. It is interesting to see people come in here and see the displays and hear the story of the recovery. There were over 80,000 pieces of debris that were found around here. They were taken to Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport and then to Washington D.C. None of the actual pieces are here, but we have a lot of pictures of the recovered debris. The story of how the people of Sabine County and especially Hemphill cooperated is wonderful”, said Scribner.
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children.
Day Trip to NASA
Most people thinking about a trip to visit a NASA facility consider going to either the Johnson Space Center near Houston or the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Hemphill, Texas, a 90 mile drive from the Orange area, is home to an informative museum dedicated to the space shuttle missions and especially to the memory of the crew of STS-107.
The formal name of the museum is: The Patricia Huffman Smith NASA “Remembering Columbia” Museum. The Columbia was the first spacecraft designed to be flown like an airplane.