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Solemn Remembrance of Those Lost Aboard Shuttle Columbia
Like countless persons across the world, I watched in quiet disbelief as thousands of pieces of debris streaked across the vast Texas sky the morning of February 1, 2003.
Unlike what had transpired in 1986 during the launch of the shuttle Challenger, this time the shuttle Columbia was re-entering earth’s atmosphere. Traveling at Mach 19 at an altitude of 200,000 feet, the shuttle was only a dozen or so minutes from touching down at the Kennedy Space Center – where family and support personnel waited. Sadly, that landing never happened.
What also made this morning different for me was that I had taken over the White House Office of Cabinet Affairs only 10 days earlier. The Office served as a policy-coordinating body across the White House policy councils, in addition to its primary function as an early warning system for events transpiring across the Executive branch – including NASA.
Watching the events unfold on television, I knew to quickly head to the office as I did most Saturdays and not surprisingly my phone went off en route to the White House. I arrived at 10:00 and already meetings and conference calls related to the disaster were being scheduled.
There was no doubt that all aboard were lost – a point made crystal clear to us later that morning. A human simply cannot withstand the tremendous physical forces from a rapid deceleration of that magnitude. We also learned quickly that few nations have the capability to shoot down anything traveling at that altitude and speed, thus ruling out the possibility of an act of terror.
All we knew was that something had gone horribly wrong.
White House Chief of Staff Card entered my West Wing office early that afternoon and told me I was going to be the main point of contact for the White House for this tragic event and for the soon-to-be-announced accident investigation board. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant at the time but Mr. Card instructed me to get the NASA chief of staff on the phone.
That is when I first met Courtney Stadd – an impassioned public servant who had dedicated his life to the US space program. Courtney was amazingly patient with me and explained in great detail what protocols were already being invoked, as were dictated post-shuttle Challenger accident. Courtney was laser-focused on the families of the astronauts, as was all of NASA. Throughout the months-long ordeal of the accident investigation, Courtney worked diligently behind the scenes, focused at all times on the well-being of the families of the fallen astronauts.
Following a Homeland Security Council meeting that afternoon, a second meeting was held early in the evening among the various offices within the Executive branch, as we heard more about the soon-to-be-announced Columbia Accident Investigation Board and a memorial service at the Johnson Space Center later that week.
While it was not discussed that day, we also learned that, this time, the mindset of the public was questioning the American space program and, specifically, whether or not the risk of space flight was worth the reward. That was in stark contrast to the mindset post-Challenger accident, when the public was eager for the shuttle to fly safely again as soon as possible. This new mindset ultimately led us to chart a new course for NASA – a policy announced in January 2004.
But that was much later, as more immediate matters took precedent.
At the invitation of NASA, I attended the memorial service of Astronaut David Brown of Virginia. I had never met Mr. Brown, but you could not help but be in awe of his accomplishments, which were many. He was by training a medical doctor and was the first Navy flight surgeon to become a fighter pilot. He was also a college gymnast and had somehow managed to remain single. The similarities between the two of us were few and far between, yet as I sat only three feet from his flag draped coffin, I learned we were only a couple of months apart in age and both not yet married. And as I heard others tell his life story during the memorial service at the Arlington National Cemetery Chapel, I felt a sense of deep regret that I never had the opportunity to meet him.
Following the service, the coffin was placed atop a horse-drawn caisson for the mile long walk to his final resting place near the marble amphitheater. As we got closer, the crowd was 10 deep and I recall my amazement at seeing so many school kids who, I suspect, were there as part of a school trip. Here they stood by the hundreds, heads draped and hands over heart as the cortege moved slowly toward Mr. Brown’s final resting place. Many of them wiped away tears and occasionally cried aloud. Otherwise, there was compete silence except for the occasional plane landing at nearby Reagan National Airport.
America buried many heroes that day and this is only one of many stories to be told of sacrifice and duty to Country which in this instance includes India and Israel. I would hope that Americans remember them all, and on this -- the 9th anniversary of Shuttle Columbia’s tragic accident -- pay eternal solemn respect to the crew of her final mission: Commander Rick Husband, Commander William McCool, Commander Michael Anderson, Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon, Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla, Mission Specialist Laurel Clark, and Mission Specialist David Brown. The words of President Reagan spoken many years ago are a fitting tribute to each of them: May God cradle you in His loving arms.
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