HEMPHILL, Texas – Few in this small East Texas town paid much attention to space flight until the crisp, foggy February morning when pieces from the space shuttle Columbia came raining down on them.
Now 2 1/2 years after the Columbia (search) tragedy, many of the 1,100 residents consider those who work at NASA (search) to be part of their close-knit community, and a few have gone to Florida to see the next shuttle launched.
They want Hemphill, which sits on the edge of the Sabine National Forest, to feel like a second home for the Columbia families. Within the next few years, residents want to have a trail leading to the site where they found the shuttle's 500-pound nose cone. They plan to memorialize each of the seven astronauts who died along the serene, wooded path.
For now though, there are simple reminders throughout town. A wooden cross has been constructed along a rural road where one astronaut was discovered and pictures of the crew and other mementoes can be found in most businesses.
First Baptist Church pastor Fred Raney has pictures of the crew in his office, a large patch memorializing the mission and a flag the town flew on the first anniversary of the accident hanging on a wall. Sabine County Sheriff Tom Maddox has similar reminders in his office, which also houses the county jail.
"Our community is all excited about the space program getting back in flight," said Belinda Gay, who runs a local restaurant and helped feed searchers who scoured the woods. "I'm sure probably everybody in town is going to be watching it."
She and Raney are among the half-dozen residents who hope to see Discovery (search) lift off on Wednesday — the first shuttle to launch since the Columbia disaster.
"There are some things you can let go of and some things you will probably always carry with you," Gay said. "Those days will probably always be with us."
During the weeks after the Columbia tragedy on Feb. 1, 2003, Sabine County residents searched the pine-studded landscape. They combed rough, briar-patched terrain and waded through knee-deep water looking for astronauts' remains and any clues about what brought their orbiter down.
Space, at least for a time, replaced fishing and hunting as coffee-shop talk.
Before that day, Hemphill resident Clark Barnett said a local would have had to dust off a book at the library to find anything related to space. The town is located about 185 miles northeast of Mission Control in Houston, which seems worlds away.
Before Columbia broke apart, cell phones rarely worked in the town, which caters to hunters and anglers, but has little other industry. A cell phone tower was erected to help searchers. Maddox laughs when he remembers not having heard of DSL service before federal agents asked him for a high-speed Internet connection.
"It is a miracle that no one on Earth got hurt by any debris," Gay said. "It is a miracle that we found all seven astronauts and it is a miracle that we were able to retrieve the black box and the experiments that were found. These are things that should not have been found, but we were able to do it because God wanted us to find it so we could get back into space."
A piece of insulating foam broke off Columbia's external tank during liftoff and knocked a hole in the left wing. The searing gases of re-entry melted the wing from the inside out, causing the spacecraft to disintegrate as it headed to Cape Canaveral, Fla (search).
Gay doesn't want to witness another disaster and acknowledges that anxiety and apprehension accompany Discovery's launch. But she remains a firm believer that exploration must go on.
"You can't stop just because we had a tragedy here," she said. "You have got to move on. You have got to look forward to the future and grow from it. I think NASA has grown from their mistakes and I know that our community has grown."
Raney, who held a solemn service each time remains from the astronauts were found, said the community grew closer through the tragedy. He said it was hard for many, including himself, not to be overcome with emotion.
"It is something I will always remember," he said. "Those 12 days and even after that were ... maybe the hardest in my life."
The pastor said the community set out to complete the astronaut's mission by returning them home to their families.
Just days from the launch, Raney said he already had goosebumps.
"It will be a tearful time I am sure because of the memories that are there," he said.
But generally there is an excitement in Hemphill, where "you don't go a day hardly without someone mentioning the shuttle," he added.
Barnett won't be in Florida for the launch. But now, he has big dreams for his little girl, who was 3-years-old when he found the body of one of the astronauts.
He said he often takes her outside at night to look at the stars, and "I keep telling her that she can be an astronaut."