Originally created 02/03/03

Lost history saddens shuttle builder



The space shuttle Columbia was a labor of love for Randy Avera, an Augusta native and a graduate of Butler High School.

On Sunday, one day after the Columbia exploded while returning to Earth, the aerospace engineer reflected on what he calls a loss of history.

"I spent four years of my life building Columbia," he said in a telephone interview from Atlanta, noting that as NASA's lead engineer he worked on the Columbia at the Kennedy Space Center with a team of about 40 engineers. "My heartbreak is the loss of one hope that I've had for years - that Columbia would one day be in the Smithsonian Institution as the first reusable spaceship.

"America has lost a resource, a good friend, and a historical spaceship."

Mr. Avera, a 1973 graduate of Butler High and resident of Augusta until age 17, now lives in the Atlanta area. He said he also was an investigator on the 1986 Challenger explosion.

On Sunday, Mr. Avera found himself answering questions on national television from Larry King and others.

"I'm working with a lot of (news) companies to try to understand (Saturday's explosion)," he said from CNN's Atlanta newsroom Sunday afternoon, minutes before being interviewed live. "There are news companies in Japan that are asking me to contact them."

Mr. Avera, who is now the president of Randolph Publishing Co. and will soon release a book, The Truth About Challenger, said he also will offer his expertise to NASA, if needed.

This time around, he said, the investigative process should be easier.

"There is a big difference," he said. "We have a lot of new technology today to analyze with. It (the investigation) will just be with better technology and lessons learned to apply to the problems."

Sunday on CNN, Mr. Avera was asked about Columbia's orbiter equipment, particularly the left main wheel well, which experienced a rise in temperature.

"The data that they do know, the increase in temperature, we're talking about a 50-degree increase in five minutes within that wheel well," Mr. Avera said. "That's not normal, and they (NASA) are looking into why that is."

The Columbia would have been 22 years old April 12, he said.

"It hasn't been determined whether it (the Columbia's age) is a contributing factor at this time," Mr. Avera said.

On CNN, Mr. Avera told viewers, "Conclusions are far down the road."

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3904 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com.