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

"It's a risk, but a risk you're willing to take."

Jones said when he first rocketed into space in 1994, the Challenger disaster was still "very much fresh in our minds."

But he says he was never consumed with fear that his space shuttle would blow up.

"The worries I had were more akin to stage fright or butterflies," he said. "You're about to go on this historic voyage, and you hope you're prepared as well as you can be to do what you have to do."

Of course, he added, "you're excruciatingly aware" of everything that happens in the first few moments after the rocket roars off the launch pad, when an explosion is most likely to occur.

"After the boosters leave," he said, "there's a big sigh [of relief.]"

Generally, he said, the space shuttle's re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere is a much calmer time.

"There's no particular milestone on re-entry when you say, 'Whew, glad that's over,'" he said. "Basically what you're doing is monitoring the ship, looking for any signs of problems and enjoying the light show outside," the hot-pink and red trails the spacecraft leaves as it hurtles through the atmosphere.

Certainly, Jones said, there was no way the crew of the Columbia could have anticipated the catastrophe that awaited them - and nothing they could have done to prevent it.

"There's no point in thinking about - or wasting time training for - what happened," he said softly.

Shortly after this point in the conversation, Jones said he had to go.

In the two days since the Columbia disaster, he had been giving interviews non-stop to the media, and now another TV camera crew had finished setting up in his living room and he was being summoned again.

Before he hung up, I asked if he agreed with all the other astronauts who have insisted the space program would not be devastated by the Columbia tragedy, and that the number of men and women willing to climb into a rocket and blast off for the stars would not shrink.

Hell, I said, 81-year-old John Glenn, on Russert's show, had said he'd get back into space tomorrow if they'd let him.

"There are probably 50 people in Houston, in the astronaut corps, who have not flown yet," Jones said. "And 99 percent will still be there, even after this."