Families bear the human cost of touching space


It soon will be one year since the space shuttle Columbia broke into pieces in the Texas sky, its crew of seven killed just minutes before they would have touched down. It was February 1, 2003, and Sunday's anniversary is when the nation will remember.

But Evelyn Husband, widow of the shuttle's commander, Rick Husband, has had many milestones to weather since the day she lost her partner of 20 years. “It's been really tough this last couple weeks because the anniversary of the last night Rick ever was at home has come and gone,” she says. “The 15th (of January) is the last day I was ever with Rick, the last time I ever kissed him.”

Husband knows Sunday “is going to be really hard, but it's hard right now because I've got a whole bunch of memories I'm having to walk through.”

As two rovers explore the terrain of Mars and President Bush speaks of a return to the moon, the Columbia tragedy is a reminder of the human cost of space exploration. The shuttle broke apart at the end of a 16-day mission when 5,000-degree gases penetrated tiles on the left wing, which were damaged during takeoff.

The seven astronauts – Kalpana Chawla, 41; David Brown, 46; Michael Anderson, 43; William McCool, 41; Rick Husband, 45; Ilan Ramon, 48; and Laurel Clark, 41 – died, leaving a total of 12 children and six spouses. Brown was the sole bachelor of the crew.

The year since then has been filled with tributes. In August, an asteroid was named for each astronaut. A mountain peak in Colorado is now known as Columbia Point. The Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, will dedicate a memorial on its cross-country track to McCool, a graduate and avid runner.

State Route 904 in Washington was renamed for Anderson, who grew up in Spokane. Airliners land at the Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport in Texas. Ramon, Israel's first astronaut, will be honored with a memorial in his native land.

On Sunday, there will be a tribute at the Super Bowl, which is being played in Houston where the astronauts trained at Johnson Space Center. And on Monday, a ceremony will be held at Arlington National Cemetery next to the marker honoring the Challenger astronauts killed in 1986.

Evelyn Husband, 45, has written a book, High Calling, about her husband's life and strong faith. And Brown's older brother, Doug Brown, is trying to complete a film about the Columbia crew.

In some ways, Brown says, the constant activity has kept the pain of his brother's death at bay. “This (past) year, we've been filled up with things that we'd never be doing,” says Brown, 50, of Fairfax Station, Va. “For the years that follow, it will just be … the absence. So I think that's what comes next. That's when you'll miss somebody the most – when the Columbia is not the news anymore, and you just don't have anybody.”

‘Still angry, I guess'

In interviews, the siblings, spouses and children of five of Columbia's crewmembers spoke of the difficulty they have had taking on the tasks their loved ones used to do and dealing with the sadness – and the anger.

“I got angry this summer,” says Sean Kasperbauer-McCool, 23, the oldest of McCool's three sons. He questioned why NASA didn't take more action as soon as the shuttle's wing was damaged after the launch. “(I'm) still angry, I guess.”

But mostly he feels sorrow. His parents had planned to come to Quebec last spring to see him perform in a play at Bishop's University, in Lennoxville, Quebec, where he is a senior. It would have been the first time they'd seen him in a college production.

Now, Sean says, his father “won't see any of my plays at the university.” And at a friend's wedding, he began to think about the daughter-in-law and grandchildren his father would never see, about his father's “not knowing them, and them not knowing him.”

Lani McCool, a photographer, says her husband was so devoted to her work that on hiking trips, he would have her camera ready, loaded on a tripod, while she sought the perfect shot. After the Columbia mission, he was planning to help her finish a book of her photographs she had started before the family moved to Houston in 1998 from Anacortes, Wash.

“He would say his next task was to help me complete the book since he'd been training for two years and the focus of our family life was on his launch,” McCool wrote in an e-mailed response to questions. “But the accident changed everything. … Many of the photos in my book were of Willie or our collaborative efforts, and suddenly the photos became too personal to share.”

Financially, the families are getting by. The Columbia Shuttle Memorial Trust has raised about $2 million that eventually will go to the families. The Space Shuttle Children's Trust Fund, created after the Challenger explosion to pay for tuition and health care, is assisting the Columbia families. Military spouses are receiving a combination of life insurance and survivors' benefits for the children. There is an additional scholarship fund.

But they still must get through each day. McCool says she misses her chess partner, the man who seemed to know what she was thinking without her uttering a word. Husband remembers Rick's funny habit of tapping his toothbrush three times after he'd brush. Sandy Anderson misses her husband's soft voice. And for many months, she could not bear to look at photos taken of him in orbit.

“I look at a few more pictures than I did early on,” she says. “But for me it was too hard.”

Anderson has mixed feelings about the public remembrances of the crew. She appreciates the tributes. But as time has passed, there are moments when it is “almost like picking a scab off a wound. You just want closure.”

Like the other families, Anderson and her daughters, Sydney, 12, and Kaycee, 10, have had a great deal of support: from the casualty assistance officer assigned by NASA, who organized their finances; the brother-in-law who helped her repaint the girls' rooms; the friends who filled the refrigerator with meals.

But even with so much help, Anderson says, “you still have to restructure your family.” And it has been difficult adjusting to their new reality or even to fully grieve during this first year. “We've been so interrupted in that process because there hasn't been a month we haven't had something to do,” she says, “something to decide that had to do with the accident. … Even getting back to normal dinner times, simple things like that, has been challenging.”

She and Michael grew up together in Spokane, where they attended Morningstar Missionary Baptist Church. They were married nearly 16 years. But Anderson remembers the moment, not so long ago, when she realized she was no longer someone's wife.

She had cut her finger and taken off her wedding band because of the swelling. “And I just didn't put it back on,” Anderson recalls. “And I realized at that point in time I wasn't married anymore. He really, really wasn't coming back.”

Now, “I put it back on on occasion. I don't wear it all the time anymore though.”

The families of Columbia's astronauts remain close. Brown's parents live in Washington, Va. And last summer, the McCools moved back to Washington state. The other families remain in Houston.

Most spent New Year's Eve together at the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Arizona, as guests of the organizers. Several families climbed Columbia Point as a group. And on Janurary 5, 2004, the spouses gathered at Arlington National Cemetery to bury remains that were recovered after the astronauts' funerals.

Coping skills gone by 10 p.m.

Getting together is not always so formal. They go out to dinner. Over Christmas, their children played laser tag. And Husband says the wives have formed a special bond as they mourn.

Husband says she and Anderson are particularly close. They belong to the same church and were prayer partners before the shuttle's launch. She dials Anderson's phone number during those times that are hard to get through. “I grieve so hard at night,” Husband says. “I've learned after about 10 p.m., I have no more coping skills for the day.”

Now that Rick is gone, she's the one who prays with her children before they go to bed. She sits in Rick's chair at the dinner table. And though she is rooted in her faith, Husband admits to sometimes feeling sorry for herself.

One of the most difficult moments was signing up her children, Laura, 13, and Matthew, 8, for soccer last spring. “Walking back out on that field and seeing all those families and all these people that I knew, and it was just me,” she remembers. “And I had to really fight off feeling almost martyr(like) about it as I lugged the ice chest and the balls … and I had nobody to help me.”

It is also difficult being a single father. Jonathan Clark, a NASA neurologist and Laurel Clark's widower, is raising the couple's 9-year-old son, Iain. He has had to learn where to buy Iain's clothes and what to cook for dinner besides soup and pizza. “He makes fun of my cooking, so we eat out more,” Clark says. “But you just get by.”

He decided not to attend Sunday's Super Bowl tribute to the Columbia crew. Instead, Clark and his son will mark the anniversary of the crash by visiting the field in East Texas where his wife's remains were found.

As Clark gives away his wife's clothes to women's shelters and Russian charities, he has had to watch their only child go through the stages of grief. “Early on it was denial and then bargaining, and now it's depression and anger,” Clark says. Iain sees a counselor.

The astronauts' spouses say their children have been resilient. Matthew Husband learned to ride a bike this year. Cameron McCool, 16, started shaving – his big brother Sean taught him how. The Anderson girls are active in the Girl Scouts and play volleyball.

But sometimes their grief pours out. Iain Clark has talked about inventing a time machine so he could go back and warn his mother. When Kaycee Anderson's maternal grandmother died before Christmas, she asked her mom, “Why is everybody dying?”

And though Matthew Husband tries to be the man of the house, when he gets upset about something, “he cries very, very hard,” his mother says. “I know part of that is grieving over his daddy.”

Most family members said they are satisfied that NASA is trying to solve the problems that surfaced after the Columbia accident. And they are pleased there are ambitious plans for the national space program. It is, they say, what their loved ones would have wanted.

However, Clark is among those dissatisfied with the state of cultural affairs one year later. He says he sees and hears enough to know that resistance persists.

“The people who don't sit there and see themselves in the (Columbia) report and see ways they can improve things, they're the ones who need to go,” Clark says. “In other words, they embrace change, but it's changing somebody else, not them.”

For some, pleasant diversions do surface. Lani McCool spoke of a trip several of the spouses made to India in November. It was organized by J.P. Harrison, widower of Kalpana Chawla, to distribute videos of the Columbia mission and mementos from Chawla's career to schools around the country.

“To hear that so many want to follow in her footsteps – that is something that touches me deeply as though K.C. (Chawla) were still having an inspiring effect on my own life,” McCool wrote.

Certainly, there will be more dedications that conjure sad memories. But, McCool says, “the pain is met with the joy of seeing the spark in those who will continue to carry the flame.”


Read our general and most popular articles

Leave a Comment