Rim country resident Michael Meidroth was at work in his Payson home office Saturday morning when his wife's mother called to tell them the space shuttle Columbia had crashed.
"We looked at each other and said, ‘Gee, do we still have those pictures,' and we dug them out," Meidroth said.
"Those pictures" were shots of Columbia Meidroth had taken in 1999 when the shuttle was in Boeing Aircraft's Palmdale, Calif., facility being refurbished. He and wife Deanna, who still works for Boeing in Mesa, were part of group of employees and family members given a special tour of the shuttle.
"At the time, we were still living in southern California," Meidroth said. "The shuttle was in for about a year of refurbishment."
In a word, the Meidroths said they were devastated by the news.
"Like most people these days, we take shuttle travel for granted," he said. "I remembered immediately the loss of Challenger and I very specifically remember that, and it affected me, and of course my wife, much the same way."
The fact that it was Columbia also had an impact.
"We had paid attention to Columbia because we felt a little kinship to it," he said. "We were close enough to have touched it, although they don't allow you to."
Looking through the photos as he recalled the tour, several things stood out for Meidroth, who owns a company that does OSHA compliance work.
"I'm a high performance car guy and I appreciate aerodynamics and things being smooth," he said. "When I saw the tiles --nd of course that's the big issue right now -- I was quite taken back that they appeared as crude as they were. But then, we were actually able to handle some of the tiles they had taken off and were changing out, so I have a first-hand feel or flavor for what a tile is ... The texture was kind of a combination, and it had a look of porosity to it. It didn't look like a (regular) piece of ceramic tile, but like it was very specifically engineered to absorb and deflect heat."
The tiles used on space shuttles vary in both color and size.
"They're different colors because some colors absorb and reflect better, and their location determined which color went where," Meidroth said. "Their size also varies and each tile is customized to its location.
"You probably read that they don't carry spares. They'd have to carry hundreds of thousands of spares because they're not interchangeable. Each one is manufactured for a specific location."
Meidroth also recalls seeing varying degrees of damage on some of the tiles.
"We could get close enough to see that the tiles had been damaged by whatever is out there," he said. "I can recall little pits and dings."
While Meidroth said that Columbia's tiles appeared to be extremely hard, it's easy to forget the conditions to which they are exposed.
"We're not thinking about something that's going through the air down here; we're thinking about something that is banging around out in space, running into stuff and stuff running into it," he said.
While Columbia was the oldest shuttle in the fleet, Meidroth emphasized that it was anything but an aging rattletrap.
"I suspect it had only been on one or two missions since it was refurbished."