Even in face of 'Columbia,' astronauts say, carry on

Kevin Cowherd

BY YESTERDAY, the cold, sick feeling of seeing the space shuttle Columbia explode in the blue Texas sky was fading for many, replaced by a numbness as gray as the February dawn.

Once again, as the TV networks noted, we were in full "America in Mourning" mode.

On the Sunday talk shows, a number of former astronauts were trotted out, clear-eyed and square-jawed and resolute, to talk about NASA's latest disaster and put it in some kind of perspective.

Normally, these talk shows will put you to sleep faster than a gun-butt to the temple.

But on NBC's Meet the Press, Tim Russert asked former space shuttle commander Rick Hauck to describe what astronauts are feeling during take-off and re-entry, and Hauck's answer was the most revealing one I'd heard.

"There's this exhilaration ... you're finally getting the ride of your life," Hauck explained. "But then reality sets in: You're sitting on a pile of explosives."

If Hauck's words were sobering, they also underscored this simple truth: At least the Columbia was a tragedy we could understand.

Who can comprehend wild-eyed hijackers screaming Allah's name and flying airliners full of terrified passengers into two Manhattan skyscrapers and the Pentagon and a muddy field in Pennsylvania?

But a space shuttle blowing apart 200,000 feet up in the air - sure, we know things like that can happen.

The space program, after all, has had several tragedies and near-tragedies since Alan Shepard became the first U.S. astronaut to rocket into space in 1961.

Three astronauts were killed in a flash fire in 1967 before the first manned Apollo flight. And when the Apollo 13 capsule returned to Earth in 1970, a frightening explosion cut off its electrical power and the crew relied on life-support systems.

Then, just 17 years ago, we saw another space shuttle, the Challenger, also with a crew of seven, burst into flames 73 seconds after lift-off, thick white plumes of smoke trailing sickly as it fell from the clear sky.

After the Challenger disaster, I remember thinking: Who could ever again put on a spacesuit and climb into one of those things?

But plenty of men and women did. And one of them was Tom Jones, a Baltimore native, who went up into space four different times, the last as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Atlantis in 2001.

Jones, 48, who graduated from Kenwood Senior High School in Essex, was puttering around his home in Oakton, Va., Saturday morning, preparing to watch Columbia's return home on the NASA cable channel, when news of the disaster broke.

"It's just a body blow to your psyche," he said yesterday over the phone. "These are all my friends."

Not only had he worked closely with many in the crew, including Rick Husband, the Columbia commander, and mission specialist Laurel Clark, but he'd also flown into space on the Columbia on his third mission in 1996.

The fear that Rick Hauck had alluded to on Meet the Press - you're riding this huge, shuddering pile of explosives into the sky - is one that every astronaut accepts, Jones said, even as they push that fear to the deepest recesses of their mind.

"I think [astronauts] think of it as: 'There are certain risks associated with the work,'" said Jones, who also performed three space-walks during his last mission. 'Am I going to be capable of doing what I have to do?' Then you commit yourself to do your work ... and trust in the design of the ship.