HOUSTON - While one investigation into the disintegration of space shuttle Columbia continued yesterday inside the Johnson Space Center, a separate reckoning began outside it.
By the thousands, parishioners flocked to the mega-churches that blanket the Houston area, seeking explanations for the loss of seven astronauts they considered their neighbors, and for the setback to a cause they consider their calling.
In vast halls with tall jagged spires as ubiquitous as oil derricks, they sang, cried and prayed as their ministers told them that the shuttle's demise was a confirmation of their faith.
"The mission of Columbia STS-107 may not have finished, but [the astronauts] have finished their mission," the Rev. Steve Riggle told more than 1,000 congregants at Grace Community Church, the evangelist church in Clear Lake near the space center where two of the astronauts were members.
Rarely has the double identity of Houston been on as clear display as it is now. The city is a capital of science, where 16,500 people are employed in connection with the nation's quest to explore outer space, and it is a stronghold of faith, a place where 3,000-person church turnouts are common and where Bible groups are as prevalent as softball teams.
In other eras and for other people, science and religion have been at odds. In Houston, by all appearances, they are fully reconciled. After all, locals say, both endeavors entail contemplating the firmament. At least one local church has a space shuttle as the centerpiece in its stained glass window.
Now, residents say, the double identity offers strength, two avenues for their grief. While they await hard answers from their scientists, they can seek solace from their church.
Science and religion "kind of help each other, feed off each other," said NASA payload officer Greg Humble, 31, as he left Gloria Dei, a Lutheran church across the street from the space center, where about 800 had gathered.
Humble helped prepare the shuttle for the experiments the astronauts conducted on board and helped train them before the mission. He was about to go back on duty in the control room Saturday when the shuttle vanished.
"They were fantastic people. They were the nicest crew I ever dealt with," he said. "This crew had something extra special about it. Every time I had a meeting with them they were great. They lit up the room."
On the southeastern edge of Houston, which NASA calls home, the refrain is the same: The astronauts were like family, and their loss is like that of a son or daughter. Residents struggle to explain why these seven - and all the astronauts who preceded them - hold such a rarefied place in the community, one that even a sports hero would envy.
Part of it, to be sure, is local pride. The oil industry may employ more people in Houston, but the space center is the city's crown jewel. You can get your teeth fixed at Space Center Orthodontics, go to the IHOP at Challenger Plaza, or eat at a McDonald's festooned with a giant inflatable astronaut.
But it's more than that, locals say. The community spread out in bungalows on the low, palm-tree shaded plain around the space center feels the loss of astronauts so acutely, they say, because it is uniquely close-knit, a place where almost everyone has moved from somewhere else and, as a result, turns to strangers for company.
"This place was built out of nothing," said Barbara Brehmer, a retired schoolteacher. "We regard everyone else as our neighbors, as family."
In this world, the astronauts training at the space center are like anyone else: "They're real people, don't think they're better than anyone else, not putting on airs," said Brehmer. They send their kids to local schools, attend the local churches. Virginia Spiers of Clear Lake has one astronaut in her quilt guild.
But, of course, they are not like anyone else. No matter how self-effacing they are, the astronauts acquire a stardom like no other, founded on their combination of smarts, fitness and, most importantly, the magical sheen that comes from traveling beyond the bounds of Earth.
"For a lot of people, the space program is about hope," said Charlotte Burgess, Brehmer's 31-year-old daughter. "NASA is about the world being unified. In space, all the stupid [stuff] we fight about doesn't matter."
With such fierce local possessiveness of the astronauts, the tragedy here is felt as an entirely local event. It doesn't matter if two of the lost astronauts were born outside the United States or that the shuttle had circled the planet in the two hours before its demise.
"You know how 9/11 was New York's thing, how that was personal for them? Well, this is personal for us," said Burgess, a biotechnology graduate student.
It goes without saying that those who live around the center won't even entertain thoughts of the shuttle disaster crippling the space program. NASA returned to flight a little less than three years after the 1986 Challenger disaster, and will return even faster this time, many say. They note that many nonspace-related advances have been developed at NASA, such as cell phone technology.
"We're good, we're really good, and we know how to do it," said Blance Kadair-Carr, a Boeing manager who took part in an independent assessment by McDonnell Douglas of the Challenger explosion. "We'll come back in months. We're better now."
Residents have confidence in the investigators' ability to determine the cause of the disaster, even as others wish for an explanation more satisfying than some intricate mechanical failure. Brehmer, for one, wishes there was an enemy to blame, "someone to beat up on."
God as a guide
Many others, meanwhile, turn to the other track of recovery. At Grace Community Church, parishioners stood and raised their hands in affirmation as a 100-person choir and 10-piece band led the church through rousing refrains. Riggle told them that space travel is motivated not just by the urge to discover but by an "inner yearning of the heart endowed by the Creator."
Later, Rick Husband, commander of the doomed shuttle and a member of the church, appeared on large video screens over the altar in a recording of an interview he had conducted before the shuttle launch. In it, Husband explained that the great achievement of his life was not becoming an astronaut but letting God guide him to that destiny.
"If I ended up having been an astronaut but having sacrificed family or living in a way that didn't glorify God, I would look back on it with great regret," Husband said. "What has meant the most to me is to live life the way God wanted me to."
Outside, as the second of the morning's three shifts of parishioners filed in, a boyhood friend of Husband reflected on what the astronaut had said.
David Jones, who had driven across Texas from Lubbock for the service, said that the recording had helped him deal with the loss of his friend.
"He had the chance to speak about what was important to him, and being the Christian he was was more important than being an astronaut," said Jones. "He loved Jesus. That may seem archaic to [some people,] but our faith is our faith."
Back at the Johnson Space Center yesterday evening, Bob Cabana, director of flight crew operations, said he couldn't help but envy Husband and his deep religious assurance.
"I wish I had the faith of Rick Husband," said Cabana. "That would bring a lot of peace right now."