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


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.

"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."

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