Remembering the Space Shuttle Columbia Crew: 20 Years Later

Columbia Crew 1

“Twenty years ago today, I was in Austin, Texas, preparing to celebrate my son’s 12th birthday with our extended family. Just after 8 am, I received a phone call from my sister, who said that Mission Control had lost contact with the Space Shuttle Columbia. I was in the process of responding that it wasn’t uncommon to experience communications outages, when she flatly stated, “Janet, debris is falling over Texas.” Within seconds, I was standing in front of the television, watching pieces of the disintegrating vehicle streak across the deep blue sky, as tears ran down my face. The shock and pain were indescribable.

The smiling NASA portraits of the crewmembers on the screen were not strangers, but the faces of my closest friends. The commander, Col Rick Husband, father of two, was an Air Force pilot, a true Texan with a Texas-sized heart and a beautiful baritone voice. Cdr Willie McCool, a Naval Aviator, was the Shuttle pilot, and a father of three. He was a kind and gentle soul who had had previously cared for my family when I flew on my second mission. Dr. Kalpana Chawla, the first female astronaut of Indian descent, held a doctorate in Aerospace Engineering. She was an avid aviator, who flew her own aerobatic airplane, and another gentle soul, who often babysat my kids when I was called to late simulator training. Dr. David Brown, another Naval aviator with the rank of captain AND a medical doctor, had also performed trapeze in a circus earlier in his lifetime. Dr. Laurel Clark was a Navy flight surgeon, also with the rank of captain, who I would often see dropping off her son at the Montessori school that my kids also attended. Lt Col Michael Anderson, an Air Force transport pilot, was the ultimate perfectionist and the father of two girls. And finally, Col Ilan Ramon, an Israeli Air Force pilot and first Israeli to fly on the Shuttle, was the father of four.

Following the accident, the Chief of the Astronaut Office asked me to serve as the lead Casualty Assistance and Calls Officer, or CACO, for the crew’s families. For the next year, as NASA investigated the cause of the accident, we kept the families updated to the level of detail that they desired, and we held memorial after gut-wrenching memorial. The final tribute was given at the Arlington Cemetery, where unidentified remains were interred next to those of fellow Challenger astronauts. For the next decade, the families and I stayed in frequent communication as statues were unveiled, schools renamed, and museum displays created.

In November of last year, I had the privilege of sharing the joy of the first Artemis launch alongside the now-grown children of Rick Husband. They had brought along their friends, and I heard the gasps of wonder and amazement as some of them watched a launch for the first time. I turned to see tears once more, but not tears of sadness or grief – rather they were tears of joy for a legacy left by those who had given their lives for the pursuit of exploration and a better life for all of humanity.

This January, I once again stood alongside the Columbia family members in Houston, Texas, as we marked NASA’s recognition of the 20th anniversary of Columbia, as well as the anniversaries of the Challenger and Apollo 1 tragedies. It was a solemn event but serves as a reminder of the memories of my friends which I will always cherish. I know without a doubt that they would be cheering us on to new discoveries and accomplishments in our continued exploration of the unknown.

As we prepare to fly our first Dream Chaser this year, I thank all fallen astronauts from the deepest recesses of my heart for their enduring legacy of dedication, hope, and perseverance, as they watch another beautiful trail to the heavens left by our own chariot of fire.”

– Janet Kavandi

“I woke up to a beautiful sunrise and clear, crisp blue skies from the balcony of my hotel room on Cocoa Beach the morning of February 1, 2003 – perfect weather for a Shuttle landing. As the lead family escort for the STS-107/Columbia crew, my job was to take care of the crew’s families through the mission – escorting them to launch and landing, keeping them informed of events/activities/mission progress, taking them into mission control for family teleconferences, and helping with anything the families might need, from babysitting to mowing their lawn to helping with homework. I was also especially close to this crew; Dr. Kalpana Chawla and I had flown our first flights together, three of the crewmembers were in the same astronaut class as Dr. Janet Kavandi and I, Ilan’s son and my daughter were classmates in elementary school – and I had once delivered an F-16 to his squadron in Israel long before either one of us were astronauts. Rick Husband and Cdr Willie McCool were my two closest friends in the Astronaut Office.

Space Shuttle Columbia Crew on the International Space Station

As we loaded into the cars to drive to the Shuttle Landing Facility that morning, the families were excited and happy, knowing they would soon be reunited with the crew – STS-107 had been up for 16 days; their children hadn’t been in direct contact with them for even longer due to preflight medical quarantine. We arrived at the runway viewing stands and joined with a large crowd of extended family, friends, and other NASA guests to watch the landing. There was a large clock counting down to touchdown, anticipating their return.

The deorbit burn went right on time, and we could hear the communications between mission control and the crew as they went through what at first appeared to be a nominal entry. As I listened to the communications loop, as an experienced Shuttle commander I started to realize things were going wrong. And by about 10 minutes prior to touchdown, I knew something had gone catastrophically wrong, and they weren’t going to make it home – but at that point no one else with me did. Those 10 minutes to touch down ticked by painfully – I felt overwhelming, nearly paralyzing dread and prayed for the words to say to the families – because I knew that very soon, they’d be looking to me and asking where Columbia and her crew were. Well, those words I fervently prayed for never came. We reached a minute out from landing and didn’t hear the twin sonic booms that always accompanied a Space Shuttle landing. The clock continued to count down all the way to zero, and then start counting up. The sonic boom never came.

We all changed forever that day. My role as family escort changed to Casualty Assistance and Calls Officer (CACO) for Rick Husband’s family as soon as we got the families back to Houston; I still serve as their CACO today and will do so for the rest of my life – Rick was my family’s CACO, and I know he would be doing the same for me had our roles been reversed. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of the Columbia crew & families. NASA recovered from this, and it made us stronger, but it took many years to fully understand what happened, but more importantly, why it happened and what we can do to minimize spaceflight risks in the future. All of us contributed to the Space Shuttle Program’s successes, but we also all contributed to its failures.

As we work fervently together at Sierra Space to fly Dream Chaser this year, remember that everything each one of us does (or doesn’t do) may have ultimate consequences. The STS-107 crew were explorers and heroes, they gave their lives not for themselves, but to improve life for us here on earth. The best way we can all honor their memory and legacy is to succeed; build our low-Earth orbit (LEO) ecosystem, create new civilizations in space, and ultimately improve life on earth – just as they did so many years ago.”

– Steve Lindsey

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