Columbia: Thinking Back – Looking Ahead

By frank_sietzen
February 1, 2009
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Columbia: Thinking Back – Looking Ahead

Excerpt from “New Moon Rising“, by Frank Sietzen, Jr. and Keith L. Cowing


Some two thousand miles to the north of where Scott Thurston stood watch over Columbia’s remains, the first anniversary of its accident approached. It was clear that its observance would require reliving the anguish of the event. In a sense, that anguish had never really gone away. During every meeting, discussion, hearing — wherever space people gathered–the wound of the accident always lay in the background, unsaid, unacknowledged, but still there just the same. Long after the flags returned to full staff, the wreckage retrieval had ended, and the CAIB report had been released — NASA was en route to ‘Return To Flight’.

Yet there was always the inevitable memory of the lost shuttle — and its crew — lingering in the back of one’s mind. After the accident, spontaneous memorials popped up all across NASA, the U. S. , and the world. Most of these faded as the flowers wilted and the rain and the wind had washed them away. Some small towns–most notably a number in Texas–erected more permanent memorials. To their citizens and the people of west Texas, the space program and the shuttles had become almost a part of their family. Others marked the passing of the craft and its crew in different ways.

The summer after the accident, it was announced that a peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Colorado was to be named ‘Columbia Point’ in honor of the crew. The location of this peak is on the east side of Kit Carson Mountain. On the northwest shoulder of Kit Carson Mountain is ‘Challenger Point’, a peak previously named in memory of the first lost shuttle.

A few weeks later, on Devon Island, in the Canadian arctic, members of the NASA Haughton Mars Project erected a series of memorials — one for each member of the crew. The structures took the form of an ‘inukshuk’– large, free – stone structures built in the rough shape of a human form. The local people, the Inuit, had been erecting inukshuks as navigation markers for centuries. Once built, they could last for many generations.

In January 2004, NASA announced that a plaque had been placed on both the ‘Spirit’ and ‘Opportunity’ Mars Rovers. With the successful landing of the Spirit on Mars, the words on the plaque were revealed: “In memoriam to the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia. “All of the crew’s names were listed along with the STS-107 mission patch, the NASA logo, and an American flag. An Israeli flag appeared next to the name of Ilan Ramon. The location where Spirit landed was hereafter to be called ‘The Columbia Memorial Station’.

After the crew of Columbia had been laid to rest and commemorated in many ways, a single, national memorial was created for dedication as the accident’s first anniversary drew near. On the morning of February 2, 2003, a memorial ceremony was held at Arlington National Cemetery. Near the place which Sean O’Keefe, Bill Readdy, Fred Gregory, and Bryan O’Connor had visited, almost a year before, hundreds now met to commemorate a stone and bronze memorial to mark the Columbia’s loss.

Sean O’Keefe sought to place this memorial — next to one honoring the crew of the shuttle Challenger — into context. Speaking into the cold winter wind, he said, “Arlington National Cemetery also provides a final resting place for great heroes who changed the course of history by blazing new trails of exploration and discovery. Among those honored at Arlington are such legends of exploration as John Wesley Powell, the first man to explore the Grand Canyon, Admiral Richard Byrd, the first to fly over both poles, and the discoverers of the North Pole, Robert E. Peary and Matthew Hensen. Resting here at Arlington is also the president who boldly set our course to the stars, John F. Kennedy. ”

O’Keefe’s remarks were brief, intense, and below the surface emotional. At the end, he pointed toward the future. “Generations from now, when the reach of human civilization is extended throughout the solar system, people will still come to this place to learn about and pay their respects to our heroic Columbia astronauts. They will look at the astronauts’ memorial and then they will turn their gaze to the skies, their hearts filled with gratitude for these seven brave explorers who helped blaze our trail to the stars. ”

Before and after the ceremony hymns were played by several military bands. The faces in the crowd were somber, many wept openly.

Later that afternoon, NASA would announce that a series of hills on Mars — visible on the horizon to the west of where Spirit had landed — would hereafter be known as the ‘Columbia Hills’; with each promontory named after a member of its last crew. Spirit would later begin a month-long trek toward these hills once it had completed its primary mission. Later, three hills in this area would be named in honor of the Apollo 1 crew. A month or so later, once the Rover ‘Opportunity’ had landed on Mars, its landing site would be named ‘The Challenger Memorial Station’.

The ceremonies and dedications to the crew of Columbia were painful to the space community. But they were set along familiar themes that Americans have come to know as traditional. But on the day following the dedication, a memorial was held in Washington, DC which marked a wholly different national tradition.

Several hundred invited guests gathered at the Embassy of Israel on that cold, wet night to remember Ilan Ramon. Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States began the event by recalling his pride at the launch of the mission. He talked of Ilan as the son of a holocaust survivor, a veteran of many dangerous missions in the defense of the Israeli nation, and the country’s first astronaut. His story, he said, epitomized the story of Israel and the Jewish people. The entire country had been waiting for Columbia to return, and Ayalon said, the pain of its loss would always be with them.

Elizer Zanberg. Minister of Science and Technology for the state of Israel spoke, and was followed by cellist Amit Peled, who played Saraband from the suite for cello solo in C major, by JS Bach.

In marked contrast to the traditional military hymns played at Arlington the previous day, Peled’s performance pulled at the soul. One could imagine all of the people in the room being drawn into every note; as if being spoken to by the cello. Then it was time for Sean O’Keefe to speak, on behalf of the president, the nation, and NASA.

He talked of heroes.

“We at NASA are extraordinarily privileged to have heroes the caliber of Ilan representing all humanity as we extend our grasp into the vast reaches of God’s creation, “O’Keefe said. He spoke of Ramon’s passion for mountain climbing, of the new Columbia Point, of his children’s determination to climb it. Last summer they, along with the family members of the other Columbia astronauts, participated in an attempt to climb that new landmark. But a storm prevented them from getting to the 14, 000-foot summit, O’Keefe said. But while on the mountain they were able to hold a remembrance ceremony at 13, 100 feet, the same height that the crew ascended to on Wind River Peak in Wyoming during their training. High above them a special jet flyby swept across the mountain range, a tribute to the crew. He then saluted all of Ramon’s children for helping to carry on the legacy of their father’s adventurous spirit.

At the end of the event, Rona Ramon, Ilan’s widow, spoke last. Steeling her emotions with grace and clarity, she spoke elegantly and briefly. She thanked all for coming. And then she talked of her husband, and the flight of the lost shuttle. “Our mission in space is not over, “she told the hushed audience. “He was the first Israeli in space– that means there will be more.”

“Out at Arlington, the bas-relief of the shuttle memorials would be seen by thousands of visitors who braved the snow and ice that winter. Visitors to the cemetery now could pause between space memorials, both built in sorrow to mark the loss of two machines and their crews. Challenger and Columbia had been destroyed by mechanical failures, to be sure.

But what lay beneath those malfunctions was hubris, a failure to understand and to listen. A need to return to such basics were at the heart of the reforms O’Keefe was attempting to impose on his reluctant agency. A change, he thought, to earn the right to execute President Bush’s vision, which at it’s center was a simple but radical idea– return the space program and the space agency back to its roots of exploration, discovery and risk-taking. His team would seek to make it a less insular, closed place. Listen, and open the doors to fresh ideas. And, using those ideas, take the next generation to what Neil Armstrong would call “places to go beyond belief.”

Bush saw it as exploring. O’Keefe saw it as a chance to transform his agency. Perhaps, in the end, its last chance to be transformed. On February 1, 2003 a hinge of history opened, and with it the possibility for new achievements in space. That possibility had been purchased for the nation in blood and treasure. O’Keefe was determined, as was his team of would-be reformers, to make certain that its cost, and who paid it, were never forgotten.

On one cold dark Sunday afternoon not long after the dedication, a mother and her young son came to the astronaut’s graves. Her identity is unknown to the authors of this book–but her actions were witnessed by one of us. Speaking with a strong accent, she tried to describe to her child what these plaques meant, and who lay buried nearby. “They were heroes,” she tried to explain, who had voyaged into space aboard the space shuttles “to help the world learn new things about the universe,” about space, but had died in the effort.

But the little child didn’t understand what she was trying to convey. “Why, mom?”he asked repeatedly, “Why did they die?” She struggled again to make sense of it so he could grasp what it was they were seeing, in a way that would fix the moment in his memory.

But the words didn’t work. In the soft, gathering winter gloom the child just didn’t understand. Finally, after he asked the second or third time, “Why did they die, mom?” his mother gave up trying to explain it. But after a moment she looked down at her son. As the sky high above Arlington turned into sunset, she said softly, “For you.”

Excerpt from “New Moon Rising“, by Frank Sietzen, Jr. and Keith L. Cowing