Remembering Columbia and seeking courage, strength and hope

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Published on: February 2, 2013

Feb. 2, 2003

Friday was the official Day of Remembrance this year for NASA and the entire space community.

At events around the country, in our nation’s capital, around the world in places like Israel, and certainly here in Florida, people took time to reflect on the losses we experienced related to the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, the Challenger disaster in 1986 and the destruction of Columbia in 2003.

That means, of course, that this year marked the tenth anniversary of the day we were forced to say good bye to the STS-107 Columbia crew of Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Dave Brown, Mike Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon.

A decade later, a milestone in the way we mark time on this planet, the Columbia disaster, naturally, was the focus of the ceremony hosted yesterday by the Astronauts Memorial Foundation at the Space Mirror memorial at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

It was a beautiful, clear and crisp day. Just right if you were in the sun, perhaps a little too cold if you were in the shade. I was glad to be in the sun, sitting near the front, at the base of all that polished black granite carved with the names of 24 astronauts who lost their lives in the line of duty.

KSC director Bob Cabana spoke. As did NASA’s spaceflight chief Bill Gerstenmeir, former astronaut Eileen Collins, and a few others. A trio of astronauts flew NASA T-38 training jets overhead in a missing man formation, which for me was the most emotionally moving moment of the day.

But the inspirational highlight of the event for me came when the widow of Columbia commander Rick Husband, Evelyn Husband-Thompson offered her memories of her spouse, the rest of the crew, and their families before, during and even after that awful Saturday morning ten years ago.

Now I know that Evelyn is a strong Christian and her words echoed her faith as she quoted from the Bible, and spoke of how she and the other families have coped through the years, and of how they have found unexpected strength and courage to deal with their loss.

Her hope for all of us was that in the tragic loss of Columbia, we too would find courage and strength, and hope, to carry on with the mission of space exploration that we all believe is so important to our future, and the future of our children.

Of course, on this “Day of Remembrance,” as each speaker took their turn, I couldn’t help but return my gaze to the Space Mirror and all of those names, think about the stories that associated with each inscription, and dwell on my own answer to the question that everyone asks on days like these: Where were you when you found out?

I was too young to remember any live reports of the loss the Gemini 9 crew of Elliot See and Charles Bassett, or of the other T-38 crashes that claimed C.C. Williams and Ted Freeman. At some point during my childhood I read about them and recall being surprised to learn there were astronauts other than those that flew in space.

My earliest recollection of the Apollo 1 fire was from reading about it in school in a Scholastic News. I remember being confused about the story and the picture because I didn’t understand why Grissom, White and Chaffee were in their spacesuits inside the capsule a month before the launch.

My connection to Sonny Carter, Mike Adams and Robert Lawrence was as a Florida Today reporter writing about the additions of their names to the Space Mirror, and with the inclusion of Adams and Lawrence deciding that there is one other name from NASA’s history I think belongs on the mirror — a discussion for another time.

For Challenger, I was at the press site at KSC, covering the launch for the Avion, my student newspaper at Embry-Riddle in Daytona Beach. I watched Challenger break apart in the sky with my own eyes, and to this day have little desire to watch any video replays of an event I can still see so clearly in my own mind.

When we lost Columbia, I was a senior producer at Space.com and was in my office in Port Canaveral, tuned into NASA TV and a variety of other sources, closely following the re-entry, my landing story ready to be published online the moment Rick Husband declared “wheels stop” and I had typed in the rest of his quote.

The full stories about what I experienced, and the behind-the-scenes media activity on the days we lost Challenger and Columbia are much more extensive, of course.

For Challenger I could tell you of how I wound up being the one who told Christa McAuliffe’s home town radio listeners that she was probably gone. And for Columbia, how as one of only four reporters at KSC who covered the final in-flight press conference, I was among the last persons to have talked directly with the crew.

And then there is the Lou Dobbs story related to Columbia and how because of him my sons had to break into my office, a story that definitely must be saved for another day.

These memories resurface every year at this time. And even as each tale is embellished a bit more with age, the grief and emptiness associated with each loss and each tragedy fades a bit more as time heals all wounds.

From disaster comes hope; hope for a future in which we all find it within ourselves to press on, do good work, and keep the dream alive. That’s what I take from what I have heard said during this year’s Day of Remembrance.

At the ceremony at KSC on Friday, Evelyn Husband-Thompson told of the final time the Columbia crew and their spouses gathered together before the launch, and of how Rick spoke of his faith and how it would guide him as commander during the next two weeks in space.

Evelyn said he closed with words from the Bible, a verse from the first chapter of Joshua, in which God is speaking to Joshua, who was facing the daunting task of leading Israel into the promised land as the successor to Moses.

Joshua was probably wondering if he had the right stuff for the job when God told him, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

As we look back and remember the Columbia crew, and all the others, today and every day, let us also remember this promise from above and go forward with renewed strength and courage and hope for the future.

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