It never ceases to amaze me how quickly we are to forget the lessons learned from our darkest tragedies, even the most recent ones.

Last night, the Defense Department, via the USS Lake Erie fired a SM-3 missile to intercept a broken spy satellite from the sky rather than letting it break apart in the atmosphere and leave hazardous debris to fall back to the Earth.  Because the mission appears to have gone off seamlessly and demonstrated the success of our technological and military prowess, some people looking for humor out of the event have found a tried and true foil to focus their attention on.  In their crosshairs — the US Department of Homeland Security and in particular the role that FEMA played in this first of its kind mission.

It may seem odd to think of DHS and FEMA playing a role in taking out an out of control satellite but it was a valuable one whether you believe it or not.

In the days prior to missile launch, FEMA engaged in a number of preemptory actions which involved sending a memo to first responders around the country that contained tips about handling the threats associated with space debris re-entry. It also set up a plan to deploy a number of task forces in the event of a crisis situation.

Rather than applaud and support such forward thinking and action, some have used this as another opportunity to make FEMA a punch line or accuse it of acting like Chicken Little crying out to the nation, ‘The sky is falling!’

Caught up in what has become almost an chronic obsession with mocking FEMA, the media and most of  the general public has apparently forgotten the lessons we learned following the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

Five years ago, I was one of thousands at NASA working to respond to what was a profoundly heartbreaking but equally dangerous situation.

On the morning of Saturday, February 1, 2003, Columbia was returning to Earth following a nearly flawless 16-day science mission but upon re-entry, the spacecraft suffering a breach in the leading edge of one of its wings was destroyed killing the seven-person crew.  As the Agency came to grips with the immediate shock of the accident and worked to find what answers we could, NASA began to issue immediate warnings through the media and to the public safety personnel in Texas and Louisiana warning them to avoid any and all contact with the Shuttle debris.

When the realization hit home that Columbia would not be safely landing at Kennedy Space Center and word of debris contrails over the skies of Texas started coming into 911 Call Centers and media reports, then NASA Administrator, Sean O’Keefe called newly installed Cabinet DHS Secretary, Tom Ridge to discuss the situation.  Ridge and his new Department had been on the job only seven days having opened their doors on January 24, 2003.  The Columbia tragedy, something unforeseen by NASA, or the organizers of DHS, had become the first national ‘event’ to occur under its watch.

Ridge pledged the Department’s full support and assistance to the response and recovery efforts and from that point forward, FEMA gave only its most exemplary service to NASA and to the residents of Texas and Louisiana where Columbia had fallen.  From the moment they got involved, FEMA, working with NASA immediately issued guidance to first responders assisting in the recovery efforts, cautioning them not to touch any shuttle debris because it was potentially hazardous.

Of greatest concern in the immediate aftermath of the shuttle accident was anyone coming into contact with the spacecraft’s hydrazine tanks. Given the explosiveness and toxicity of hydrazine, exposure, even in small levels could be fatal to anyone who comes in contact with it.  Because of their construction, shape and design, it was determined early on the day of the accident that there was a very high probability that the tanks could survive re-entry.  They did.

While the majority of the shuttle broke apart and burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere, the tanks survived re-entry relatively intact.  Because it was near the end of the 16-day mission, the tanks were nearly empty of their toxic fuel but when they were discovered by residents and first responders of Texas and Louisiana, there were still enough traces of hydrazine to warrant concern and HAZMAT Teams were used to recover them.

As a result of the warnings and assistance that FEMA and many others offered to first responders and the residents of Texas and Louisiana, (and the benevolence of God), no one was killed or injured by any of the debris or the recovery operations in the immediate days afterward.  The debris recovery operations would go on for months afterwards and collected millions of pieces strewn over hundreds of miles.  Tragically two months after the Columbia accident, a helicopter team aiding the debris recovery efforts and searchers on the ground crashed killing two and severely injuring three others.

Despite what critics and comics may say, FEMA’s memo to first responders regarding the possible satellite debris was absolutely the right thing to do. While the satellite may have been shot out of the sky over the Pacific, there was a chance (albeit an incredibly remote one) that hazardous debris could fall some where and cause a danger.  One can only imagine if the missile shot had missed and the spy satellite had fallen into the atmosphere with over 1,000 pounds of deadly hydrazine and other debris hurtling Earthward what the reaction might have been had FEMA done nothing to prepare communities for the disaster.  As an ‘All-Hazards’ agency, its their job to share their insights and experiences for any prospective emergency, regardless of how remote a possibility an event might be so we can all be better prepared.  And I’m pretty sure falling toxic space debris easily qualifies under ‘all-hazards.’

Ridiculing FEMA and calling their actions a waste of taxpayer funds is nothing short of an idiotic, juvenile cheap shot by arm-chair quarterbacks who think they know it all.  They don’t and I’m glad they aren’t running our county’s emergency management either.

If you talk to the residents who live in Texas and Louisiana who dealt firsthand with dangerous debris turning up in their backyards, streets, parking lots and fields, I’m sure they haven’t forgotten the lessons learned from the Columbia accident and neither has FEMA.  But it looks like a lot of other people have…

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More