Former KTRE photographer recalls finding astronaut helmet ten years ago

LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) - Scott Cooper, the former chief photographer for KTRE news, says when he covered the Columbia Space Shuttle tragedy he thought of it as another story. But when he stumbled upon an astronaut's helmet in a field near San Augustine his feelings changed.

"At that moment was when you know this is a tragedy. There are people who died and if anything else, this whole story says people. It's this helmet. It's this one moment in time that you say someone wore this and is no longer alive," Cooper said.

Cooper said he had been awoken that Saturday morning by an urgent phone call from his wife. Grabbing his gear, he rushed out to San Augustine to get the ball rolling on news coverage after hearing there was a lot of debris found in the area.

"The first piece I found that I saw of the shuttle was right after I crossed the 103 bridge and there was a piece of metal on the side of the road and I said 'ok,' and I got that picture and off I went to the next one," Cooper said.

After hours of shooting footage of scraps of metal, Cooper decided to make his way back to the station when a pair of young boys caught his attention.

"I had just finished an interview and was in the caravan following the lead guy and I was getting ready to pull out when some kids came up and said we found the helmet," Cooper said.

Armed with his camera, Cooper rushed to the location of the helmet and was shocked by what he saw.

"Surprisingly, it landed upright and it only sank into the ground like four inches and that was the interesting thing about all the debris. It was very shallow. It was sitting there propped, facing forward. The inside was charred, the lining was charred, the visor was gone, but it was just sitting there," Cooper said.

"I mean, it's just amazing that it's sitting there. I mean, right in the grass. It's upright. That's the amazing thing. It's sitting there upright, sitting in the ground like it's saying come. To me, this is the memorial right there."

Cooper said that as a news person he had to keep his emotions at bay, but once he saw the helmet all bets were off.

"When you are in the news business and emergencies happen, you shift off your emotions and turn on the reporter brain. What do you need to get, what does the public need to see, what information do you need to get to the public, what are the stories out there? Your brain is fully engaged in covering the event. You have to put your emotions to the side. You don't think about the incident emotionally until later," Cooper said. "That was the first video of anything that was associated with an astronaut. That really brought the story home. If I had an emotional reaction, it was when I saw that helmet."

Cooper is now the Angelina County Commissioner for Precinct 4, but says he doesn't feel emotional about the anniversary of the tragedy like others do.

"You feel for them, but ultimately they're adventurers and adventurers go up and sometimes they don't come back. It's part of the job and as a news reporter you go places that are very dangerous and you accept the fact that if you are out here something might happen," Cooper said. 

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