Quotes of the Day

Columbia Astronauts
Sunday, Feb. 02, 2003

Open quoteWe name our shuttles for our aspirations—Atlantis, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour—the risks built into the very idea. Columbia, the fleet's pioneer, was named after an old Boston sloop that was the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe, carrying a cargo of otter skins to China. Any risk much repeated can become routine, and so it was for shuttle flights, except when they become tragic. That's when we are reminded that knowledge doesn't come easy and that many consequences are unintended, especially when we set off on an adventure.

It's strange how we glimpse the impossible only when it fails. How can this spacecraft exist, one that leaves the earth like a ballistic missile, a fragile plane strapped to half a million gallons of explosive fuel, but two weeks later returns as a glider, swooping in wide S turns back to earth under nature's power alone? The engineers who build these things know that so much has to work so perfectly and with such precise timing that we should expect them to fail catastrophically every 100 missions or so. That's why NASA must be America's most optimistic government agency, that it can keep muscling forward in the face of such odds. Columbia was the 88th mission since the Challenger was lost in January 1986—one flight lost to the cold, one perhaps to the heat.

This crew flew into that anniversary and marked the moment on board. Mission chief Rick Husband called for a moment of silence. "They made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives to their country and mankind," he said of the astronauts of Challenger and Apollo 1, whose three astronauts died in a launch-pad fire in January 1967. "Their dedication was an inspiration to each of us." It would be cheaper and safer to explore space with cameras and computers rather than men and women. But something would be lost as well, something brave and passionate that was sent in the messages and shown in the lives of the Columbia crew, who knew better than most the risks they took.

More than half the crew were rookies, who seemed to delight in the surprises of space, highly disciplined engineers and doctors reveling in a place where rules are broken, where physics plays games—Look, my cup is floating. They swam through the Columbia's passageways like happy dolphins, thrilled with their good fortune, doing somersaults.

This came naturally to David Brown, who in an earlier life was a tumbler and stilt walker in the circus and rode a 7-ft. unicycle before he settled down to be a flight surgeon and naval aviator. That turned out to be good training: "What I really learned from that," he said once, "is kind of the teamwork and the safety and the staying focused, even at the end of a long day when you're tired and you're doing some things that may have some risk to them." This was his first space flight, and when he talked about it with friends, he talked faster, and his eyes got brighter, and his hands started moving, because there was no other trip like this.

Whatever their specialties, all were teachers. They were growing bone cells and prostate-cancer cells and protein crystals, studying the effect of dust storms on the global climate and space flight on the cardiovascular system. Michael Anderson, who used to build moon houses for his sister's Barbies, once told a group of second-graders, "Whatever you want to do in life, you are training for it now." He worked so hard in college that he saw only two movies the entire time, but he wound up with a degree in physics and a chance to do what he had wanted ever since he was 3. At his old grade school in Avondale, Ariz., where his sister teaches, there were shuttle-shaped posters saying you are my hero, michael anderson and the sky's the limit. A new model of the space shuttle had just arrived, and kids flocked to it in the library.

Pilot Willie McCool answered e-mail questions in space over NASA's website. He explained how the G-forces on takeoff feel kind of like a bear sitting on your chest. He had trouble sleeping that first night, when you are essentially floating in your bed. The hardest part of his job was having to take blood from his fellow astronauts. "He was afraid he would hurt somebody while he was drawing blood," one friend and fellow pilot says. They had been serving together on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise when McCool got word he had been accepted by NASA. "I know he struggled with that decision, and I know that it was a family decision," he says of the father of three sons. "Willie was very much a family man and a good friend."

Shuttle missions are always a mix of symbol and substance; the Challenger had the schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe; Columbia had Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut and a decorated F-16 pilot, whose mother and grandmother were Auschwitz survivors. He hoped that his adventure would be a happy respite from a hard winter for his embattled country: Israel could travel with him, to feel safe in a borderless universe. Even a Palestinian Authority spokesman had wished for his safe return. "We flew over Jerusalem," he said in an interview from space. "Israel looked so small and beautiful." He had asked Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for an Israeli emblem to take with him. And he borrowed a drawing from Jerusalem's Holocaust museum—by Peter Ginz, a boy in a concentration camp—of what he thought the earth would look like from the moon. Ramon sent his last letter by e-mail to his wife Rona on Friday: "Though everything here is astonishing," he wrote, "I can't wait until I'll see you all. Big hug to you and the kids, Ilan."

All were adventurers long before they became astronauts. Before Kalpana Chawla was born, her mother had been hoping for a son. "But out came Kalpana," her mother told the Week magazine in India, "who has achieved more than a boy could." Kalpana decided she wanted to be a space engineer by the time she was 14 and was the only woman to study aeronautics at Punjab Engineering College. Still, the idea of going to America was a shock to the members of her traditional family, and they agreed only on the grounds that her brother Sanjay would come with her to settle her in. She became an astronaut in 1994 and flew her first shuttle mission in 1997. She couldn't get over the marvel of it. "You just hang; you can't feel your hands," she told Colorado Engineer magazine. "It's not like on earth, where you can feel the ground and your elbows feel the chair. The only thing I feel is my thoughts." She used to set herself a time during meal breaks, always aiming for sunrise, so she could watch the earth move from dark to light as she went racing past.

She came away reminded that the world is very, very small, wishing we could all take the trip, because we would all come back better housekeepers, wiser stewards. "This planet below you is our campsite," she said, "and you know of no other campground."

The astronauts' final day began with Scotland the Brave, piped over the radio. The song was for Laurel Clark, the doctor from Iowa who was coming to the end of her first space flight. Did she know the words? "Wild are the winds to meet you. Staunch are the friends that greet you, kind as the love that shines from fair maidens' eyes." Her friends and family had been waiting to greet her from the moment she left. After Columbia lifted off safely, Clark's brother Daniel Salton told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he realized he had been holding his breath for about 10 minutes. "Anyone who has watched (video of the) Challenger can't even hardly bear going through" the point where the Challenger exploded, her other brother Jon said.

"After that point, you can relax." Clark's son Iain said he wished someone else could have gone instead of his mom because he was missing her. She had taken with her a sheet containing all the pictures and fingerprints of his second-grade classmates. She e-mailed her family about how beautiful Mount Fuji looked from space, and the Sahara Desert, and the stars, up close. The fears that weighed on her family sat lightly on her. "To me, there's a lot of different things that we do during life that could potentially harm us, and I choose not to stop doing those things," she said. "They've all come to accept that it's what I want to do."

So the reunions were ready, the celebrations waiting at the Kennedy Space Center, where Columbia was due to land. In Spokane, Wash., neighbors of Anderson's parents thought maybe they were having a party Saturday morning, a day to celebrate their son's second space adventure, but then it was the pastor coming and a neighbor with groceries because the truth was on TV. The countdown clock in Florida had started counting back up, when the landing time had passed and the shuttle had not arrived. People watching in eastern Texas heard a crushing rumble outside, the dogs whined, and horses started, and a poisonous rain of broken shuttle pieces fell onto backyards and roadsides and parking lots, through the roof of a dentist's office, bits of machinery in Nacogdoches, a hand and leg in San Augustine. NASA told everyone to stay away from the debris, that it could kill you, but the agency mainly wants a chance to gather the evidence and deter grave robbers. NASA buried all the remains of the Challenger in an old missile silo and sealed it with tons of concrete so the remains would never be auctioned off.

It tells you something about America's new reflexes that when Columbia vanished, NASA chief Sean O'Keefe called the White House and a Cabinet office that didn't even exist when the Challenger crashed: Homeland Security. "There are no survivors," the President said, but by then we had been watching the endless video of what looked like the shooting stars of August, knowing that those bright white puffs of star were made of metal and rubber and men and women. Like other fiery images, this one keeps replaying in the dark long after you turn it off, and while it felt like an attack on the calm of this watchful winter, in this case there was no apparent evil, no enemy other than the limits of man and machines and the tension between the goals we set and the risks we take.

—With reporting by Michael Duffy/Washington, Cathy Booth-Thomas/Nacogdoches; Simon Crittle, Amy Goehner, Sean Gregory, Ratu Kamlani and Julie Rawe/New York; Meenakshi Ganguly/New Delhi; Rita Healy/ Denver; Broward Liston/Cape Canaveral; Matt Rees and Aharon Klein/ Jerusalem; and Winston Ross/Spokane Close quote

  • Nancy Gibbs
Photo: REUTERS/NASA | Source: The Lost Crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia