Image: Brown, Anderson, Clark
David J. Phillip  /  AP
Doug Brown, Sandy Anderson and Jonathan Clark — all relatives of Columbia crew members — gather in Friendswood, Texas, during the dedication of a park honoring astronaut David Brown.
updated 7/6/2005 7:09:32 PM ET 2005-07-06T23:09:32

Families of the seven astronauts who died aboard the shuttle Columbia feel hope and pain as they reflect on NASA’s return to space for the first time since the tragedy 2½ years ago.

Relatives of at least three of the Columbia astronauts plan to attend the launch of Discovery on July 13. And some are sending mementoes up with Discovery’s crew, such as flags, gold medallions, a Columbia mission pin.

Discovery commander Eileen Collins said her crew plans a special tribute to their Columbia colleagues from space, but she won’t share the details.

“The crew members were our friends and we miss them very much,” Collins said. “But somehow I know that we will feel closer to them as we experience this shuttle flight during our day-to-day activities on orbit, and especially when we experience, as they did, the joy of weightlessness and viewing the beautiful planet Earth from space.”

The Columbia families say they hope Discovery’s mission will be flawless, enabling NASA its pursuit of new missions to the moon and Mars.

“But then, there is also the pain of knowing that our loved ones didn’t come back. So that leaves an emptiness that is somewhat reminded by the fact that there’s another launch,” said Dr. Jonathan Clark, the NASA flight surgeon whose astronaut-wife, Laurel, died aboard Columbia.

Clark will be joined at Discovery’s launch by Sandy Anderson, widow of astronaut Michael Anderson; and Doug Brown, brother of astronaut David Brown.

Wishing for a safe return
But a successful launch alone won’t be enough to ease the pain and anxiety of Columbia families. It will also take a safe return to Earth.

“We don’t have the luxury of not being worried during landing any more,” said Evelyn Husband, widow of Columbia commander Rick Husband. “Both events (launch and landing) have now been compromised by tragedy, so I don’t think we’ll ever view either one casually ever again.”

NASA’s shuttles once were viewed as safe enough to ferry legislators and even a high school teacher to space. Then on Jan. 28, 1986, Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing its seven astronauts.

After Challenger, many breathed a sigh of relief as each shuttle made it into orbit, but Columbia forever changed that when it broke apart just minutes from landing.

The Columbia tragedy and the investigation that followed awoke space-industry workers and the world to new, unrealized dangers in what was already considered a chancy business, said Sandy Anderson.

“It has taken away our rose-colored glasses, if we had them about flight,” she said. “We always knew that spaceflight was a risky business, but now without a shadow of a doubt we know a few more things about how risky it really is.”

Closely watched efforts
The Columbia families have closely watched NASA’s efforts to meet the 15 safety goals set by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board to resume flight.

“It is really important for me that I see that they are learning from the accident, that they are benefiting from the suggestions and recommendations of the CAIB report,” Anderson said. “That’s what’s going to leave the most important legacy.”

The investigation board found that Columbia was brought down Feb. 1, 2003, because a piece of insulating foam broke off the shuttle’s external tank during liftoff and punched a hole in the leading edge of its left wing. The searing gases of re-entry melted the wing from the inside out, causing the shuttle to disintegrate over Texas as it headed to Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Clark said what he has learned from the investigation about the crew’s final moments and the previously unknown risks they faced during the mission has been little comfort.

“There’s no question they knew at the end that they weren’t going to make it and they were doing everything they could to try and keep the vehicle controllable and that wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “That makes me realize that we really have to do the best job we can at making it safe.”

To go or not to go
Clark mulled over attending Discovery’s launch, ultimately deciding it could be cathartic. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to do that just to emotionally help with my closure,” he said.

Evelyn Husband will not. She said going to Florida for liftoff or landing would just be too painful and difficult. She and the other families were waiting at Kennedy Space Center for Columbia to return when they learned the shuttle had been lost.

“I know that some of the families want to go,” Husband said. “I just don’t want to.”

The Columbia accident took the astronauts’ lives in a public and brutal way, making their grieving even more difficult, said Clark, who continues to live in Houston with his 10-year-old son.

“I don’t even know how I’ve made it through,” he acknowledged. “I think if I hadn’t had my son, I would have checked out. It was more pain than I could have possibly imagined.”

Husband lost not only her spouse, but the simple reminder of him in her wedding band, which the commander took with him aboard Columbia. The ring was never found among the tens of thousands of pieces of shuttle debris strewn over Texas and Louisiana.

Since the tragedy, Husband has focused on her 9-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter. She said she still cries often when they are asleep, at times because she realizes her children will have few memories of their father.

“Below the surface that pain is always there,” she said. “But you learn to live with it and learn to deal with it, but it is not something that is going to ever go away.”

Anderson’s pain has lessened over time. “But you do have your moments still where it does feel very fresh,” she said, “but at least now they are only moments.”

Anderson plans to watch Discovery lift off to honor her husband, and has another activity arranged for her daughters, ages 11 and 13.

“It is hopefully going to put some more closure on things for me,” she said. “As NASA begins to fly again, it is going to be difficult for not just me, but probably for all of the families.”

The need to explore
Audrey McCool, the mother of Columbia astronaut William McCool, said her son would have hated the shuttle program to end because of Columbia. Space exploration was important to him and she is happy NASA may soon return to flight.

Doug Brown said his brother, David, knew he was involved in a risky business, but had a “need to explore, which he got through NASA.”

Relatives of the other two Columbia astronauts, Kalpana Chawla and Ilan Ramon, did not respond to questions from The Associated Press.

But the Columbia families who were willing to discuss the tragedy and its aftermath said they’ve grown closer since the tragedy. “We have all been through such a horrific thing together,” Husband said.

In April, Anderson and Clark attended the dedication of a park for astronaut David Brown in his suburban Houston neighborhood. Anderson photographed the event for the astronaut’s brother, Doug, who took part in the ceremony.

A resident of Virginia, Brown spent time with his brother’s friends and colleagues.

Two days after the dedication, when Husband couldn’t craft mouse ears for her son’s school play, Anderson, who lives in Husband’s Houston area neighborhood, again came to the rescue.

“That’s awesome. He’ll be so happy,” Husband gushed to her friend. “Thank you, Sandy. What a blessing.”

The Columbia families said the bond among the seven astronauts was evident, and now they have a closeness of their own.

“It has really knitted us together as a family,” Anderson said of the tragedy.

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