DoD Mourns, Begins Help After Columbia Shuttle Tragedy
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 1, 2003 NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew of seven a "tragic day" for the NASA family and America.
The orbiter broke apart above north-central Texas on Feb. 1 as it maneuvered for a planned landing at the Kennedy Space Center, Fla., in about 15 minutes. The shuttle was at about 203,000 feet and going about 12,500 mph, or Mach 18, when the accident occurred.
Five of the seven astronauts aboard were serving U.S. military officers. Air Force Col. Rick D. Husband, Navy Cmdr. William C. McCool, Air Force Lt. Col. Michael P. Anderson, Navy Capt. David M. Brown and Navy Cmdr. (Dr.) Laurel B. Clark were presumed lost in the accident. Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla and Israeli air force Col. Ilan Ramon also died.
NASA Administrator O'Keefe notified President Bush of the accident soon after it happened. The president assured O'Keefe of the full support of the government.
"The Department of Defense will do everything asked of us by the lead federal agency the Federal Emergency Management Agency," said a DoD spokesman.
Bush spoke to the nation about the loss of the astronauts. "In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket, and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere of the Earth," the president said. "These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life. Because of their courage and daring and idealism, we will miss them all the more."
O'Keefe said there was no indication that anything from the ground affected the Columbia. He announced the formation of an external review group. The group, which will include representatives from the Air Force and Navy, will have full access to all data involved in the mishap. NASA will also empanel an internal mishap group.
DoD will make all applicable information available, including radar reports generated out of U.S. Strategic Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Also, the DoD Manned Space Flight Support Office will work closely with NASA, the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA. (FEMA officially will become part of DHS by March 1.)
U.S. military bases in Texas are standing by to assist FEMA in any way possible. And the newly formed U.S. Northern Command will also help civilian authorities upon request.
A visibly moved O'Keefe spoke of the mishap during a Feb. 1 press conference from Kennedy Space Center. "It started out as a pretty happy morning awaiting the landing of STS-107," he said. "We highly anticipated their return, because we couldn't wait to congratulate them for their extraordinary performance and their excellent efforts on the science mission on this very important flight.
"(The crew) dedicated their lives to pushing the scientific challenges for all of us here on Earth. They dedicated themselves to that and did it with a happy heart, willingly and with great enthusiasm. The loss of this valiant crew is something we will never be able to get over."
O'Keefe said he told the families of the astronauts that he will do everything to help them "work their way through this horrific tragedy."
NASA Associate Administrator for Space Flight Bill Readdy said the families are bearing up to the tragedy with an incredible amount of dignity. "One thing came across loud and clear as we were visiting with them," he said. "They knew the crew was absolutely dedicated to the mission that they were performing . They believed in what they were doing."
Readdy said the families told NASA to "find what happened, fix it, and move on. We cannot let their sacrifice be in vain."
The Columbia mishap occurred almost 17 years to the day after the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. On Jan. 28, 1986, Challenger erupted in a ball of flames about one minute after liftoff from Kennedy Space Center. Seven astronauts died in that mishap, among them three military officers: Navy Captain Michael J. Smith, Air Force Lt. Col. Francis Richard "Dick" Scobee and Air Force Lt. Col. Ellison S. Onizuka.
Thirty-six years ago, on Jan. 27, 1967, three astronauts died in a flash fire at Kennedy Space Center during a launch pad test of the Apollo/Saturn space vehicle being prepared for the first piloted flight. Air Force Lt. Col. Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Air Force Lt. Col. Edward H. White and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Roger B. Chaffee were victims of that tragic accident.