February 1, 2013, is the tenth anniversary of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia. I’ll never forget that Saturday. Around 6 AM Pacific Time, I was watching NASA TV, waiting for the reentry to be broadcast. After a few minutes, I realized that something was wrong. It was announced that contact had been lost with the shuttle. And then, instead of the sound of Mission Control voices announcing the trajectory and data as Columbia returned home, there was silence. I remember holding my breath and praying that maybe there was just a glitch in the system. I kept waiting to hear the voice of Commander Rick Husband, announcing that all was well with STS-107. As the silence continued, I thought about the two anniversaries that had occurred within the week – January 27 was the anniversary of the Apollo I fire and January 28 marked the day that Challenger exploded in 1986. Was February 1 destined to become another grim marker in human space exploration? As I watched the faces of the silent engineers, I knew the answer.
When I switched to a news channel, my fears were confirmed. Video showed the shuttle breaking into pieces. Tears streamed down my face like the stream of debris that had fallen from the sky. I called my friend Lorraine. When she answered the phone, I was almost hysterical.
“It’s gone,” I cried. “Columbia. It’s gone. Oh my God, I can’t believe it. They’re dead, all seven of them. It blew up. It’s gone.”
I had followed Columbia since its initial launch on April 12, 1981. When I wrote a romance novel about two multicultural astronauts, I ended the story on Columbia, with my main character looking out the window. During the mission, East Indian astronaut Dr. Kalpana Chawla had talked about what it was like to look out of the windows of the shuttle. “In the retina of my eye, the whole Earth and the sky could be seen reflected. I called all of the crew members one by one, and they saw it, and everybody said, ‘Oh, wow!’” Hearing her words repeated by a broadcaster the morning of the tragedy sent a chill through me. All my life, I had wanted to be an astronaut or somehow connected to the manned space program. Decades of following the triumphs and defeats of space flight and years of working on my novel had personalized space travel for me. The loss of Columbia and its crew felt like the loss of a family member, a family member that you had encouraged, admired and loved for many years.
At the time, I was involved in a long distance masters program. During a group discussion that day, I mentioned my distress over Columbia. After the discussion, my professor shared the story of her father, a test pilot who had died on a flight when she was a child in New Mexico. Her story touched me, and made the loss of the orbiter even more real to me.
A few years later, I ordered a poster from the National Air and Space Museum. It was a poster of Columbia from the vantage point of a shuttle commander. My friend Lorraine gave me a commemorative tee shirt dedicated to the memory of Columbia and its crew. Every year, on February 1, I don the shirt and think about the seven astronauts, Rick Husband, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Ilan Ramon, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla and William McCool, and their ultimate sacrifice for the advancement of knowledge and discovery. Even though the Space Shuttle Program is no more and the remaining shuttles have been installed in museums around the country, I will never forget. As President George W. Bush said in his eulogy, “To leave behind Earth and air and gravity is an ancient dream of humanity. For these seven, it was a dream fulfilled.”
May that dream live forever.
(Quotes from The Space Shuttle: A Photographic History by Philip S. Harrington, published by BrownTrout Publishers, Inc. in 2003. Thanks Lorraine!
Also check out my essay on Columbia in Yahoo News http://news.yahoo.com/columbia-dove-still-soars-imagination-190100802.html)