Richard Jones said the job of teams gathering pieces of Columbia reminds him of his work at NASA.
In 1986, Jones helped bury the wreckage from the space shuttle Challenger.
The North Carolina State University graduate worked with NASA for 32 years.
"I loved it from the start," he said.
Jones said he remembers when he started working there. It was a time at NASA before the first astronauts became American heroes.
The Apollo tragedy was the first experience of loss in his job.
"Three astronauts died in Apollo Cape fire," Jones said.
Jones helped bury the wreckage of the space shuttle Challenger two years before he planned to retire.
Part of his task was to prepare vacant missile silos as a permanent tomb and keep the debris safe from souvenir seekers.
Jones said he feels angry when he hears about people trying to take pieces of Columbia debris.
"They're not only endangering themselves, they're going against the investigation of finding out how these poor people died," he said.
Columbia was the oldest of the space shuttle fleet. It first launched in April 1981.
Jones has a collection of clippings, which include articles about chipped and missing tiles on Columbia's first voyage into space.
Investigators are looking into whether a similar problem may have caused the vehicle to disintegrate during reentry.
"They've got a tremendous task in front of them," Jones said.
Jones said he expects the shuttle program to be delayed in the immediate future, but hopes space travel will endure in the end.
"That's our future. In space," he said.