Chapter One: Re-Entry
Looks like a blast furnace.
-- Shuttle commander Rick Husband, midway through re-entry
Plunging back to Earth after a 16-day science mission, the shuttle Columbia streaked through orbital darkness at 5 miles per second, fast enough to fly from Chicago to New York in two and a half minutes and to circle the entire planet in an hour and a half. For Columbia's seven-member crew, the only hint of the shuttle's enormous velocity was the smooth clockwork passage of entire continents far below.
Commander Rick Husband knew the slow-motion view was misleading, a trick of perspective and the lack of anything nearby to measure against the craft's swift passage. He knew the 117-ton shuttle actually was moving through space eight times faster than the bullet from an assault rifle, fast enough to fly the length of 84 football fields in a single heartbeat.
And Husband knew that in the next 15 minutes, the shuttle would shed the bulk of that unimaginable speed over the southwestern United States, enduring 3,000-degree temperatures as atmospheric friction converted forward motion into a hellish blaze of thermal energy. It had taken nearly 4 million pounds of rocket fuel to boost Columbia and its crew into orbital velocity. Now the astronauts were about to slam on the brakes.
For Husband, a devout Christian who put God and family ahead of his work as an astronaut, flying this amazing machine home from space was a near religious experience in its own right, one he couldn't wait to share with family and friends gathered at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He had served as pilot on a previous shuttle flight, but this was his first as commander, and in the world of shuttle operations, it's the commander who actually lands the spacecraft.
He relished the opportunity. But his life as an astronaut took a backseat to his deep faith in God. Before blasting off on his second space flight as commander of Columbia, he videotaped 34 Bible lessons for his two kids, one each for the 17 days he would be away from home.
"The space shuttle is by far the most complex machine in the world," he had told his hometown church congregation three years earlier. "When you think about all the thousands of people it took to sit down and design this machine -- the main engines, auxiliary power units, the hydraulics, the flight control systems, the reaction control jets, the solid rocket boosters, the external tank that fuels the main engines, the crew compartment with all the controls and all the time that was spent to put this thing together and make it work -- it's to me inconceivable that you could take a look at the universe and think that it all just happened by accident.
"And inside that vehicle are seven astronauts, each one of which is more complex than this vehicle we went up in," he continued. "And God is an awesome God."
Looking over his cockpit instruments as he prepared Columbia for entry, the 45-year-old Air Force colonel chatted easily with his crewmates, coming across more as an older brother than as the skipper of a $3 billion spacecraft. But underneath the friendly camaraderie was the steady hand of a commander at ease with leadership and life-or-death responsibility.
"People have characterized him as a laid-back guy, easy-going," said entry flight director LeRoy Cain, who shared Husband's deep religious convictions. "But a lot of that was based in his faith, realizing our time here is limited and ultimately the real goal is to have that relationship with your maker. And he had that and he wanted to share that in a way that wasn't intrusive or offensive. And that's the biggest reason this crew gelled so well together."
Husband was also the first pilot since the astronaut class of 1984 to be given a shuttle command on his second mission. Kent Rominger, chief of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's astronaut corps and commander of Husband's first mission, said Husband "came out of that flight with a really strong reputation. Rick worked hard, did a really good job, was a great leader. He was a really gifted pilot."
So good, in fact, that data tapes charting his every move at the controls of NASA's shuttle training aircraft were frequently used to show other pilots how a textbook approach and landing should be flown."This is Mission Control, Houston. Columbia's altitude is now 90 miles above the Pacific Ocean to the north of the Hawaiian Islands, about two minutes away from entering the Earth's atmosphere," said NASA commentator James Hartsfield, his words carried around the world by satellite over NASA's television network. "All activities continuing to go smoothly en route toward a touchdown at the Kennedy Space Center at 8:16 A.M. Central time."
Getting to Columbia's flight deck hadn't been easy for Husband, who grew up dreaming about one day flying in space.
"I've wanted to be an astronaut all my life, ever since I was about four years old," he once said. "It was the only thing I could think about wanting to do."
So he planned his education and a military career with that single goal in mind.
After graduating from high school in 1975, the boy from Amarillo enrolled at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, a two-hour drive, where he earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1980. There, he fell in love with Evelyn Neely, who, like Husband, had grown up in Amarillo. The two were married in their hometown at First Presbyterian Church. Now, 20 years later, the couple had two children, a 12-year-old daughter, Laura, and a 7-year-old son, Matthew.
The first seven years after his college graduation included an endless procession of Air Force bases, where he learned to fly the F-4 fighter and eventually became so good at it he was promoted to instructor. In 1987, he was assigned to the legendary test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California's Mojave Desert. As an Amarillo schoolboy, he had built models of the flame-belching missiles that catapulted his heroes into orbit. Now, here at the same place where Chuck Yeager had broken the sound barrier, Husband proved he also had the right stuff.
But that wasn't enough.
By the time he arrived at Edwards, Husband already had applied to be an astronaut once and had been turned down. That was just prior to the explosion of the shuttle Challenger in 1986, and NASA ultimately canceled all new astronaut hires. Husband applied again afterward and was turned down a second time. Realizing NASA wanted astronaut candidates with advanced degrees, he went back to school at Fresno State University and earned a master's degree in mechanical engineering. The third time around, he got as far as the Johnson Space Center in Houston for a week of interviews and tests. Worried he might not pass the physical this time because of his eyesight, he wore contact lenses and lied about that on the application. He passed the physical, but again, the answer was no.
In the meantime, Husband drew an assignment as an exchange pilot with Britain's Royal Air Force in 1992 and shipped off to Boscombe Down, England, where he helped test a variety of new aircraft. He prayed for guidance on what he should do.
"God showed me that lying certainly was not the kind of thing that a Christian is supposed to do," he reflected in 2000. "When it came time for me to fill out the application a fourth time, I felt the strongest prompting from God to tell the truth. In studying the Bible more, I had come across Proverbs 3:5-6 that says, 'Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.'
"It was as if God was saying 'Just trust me! You lied last time and didn't make it. Try telling the truth this time and see what happens.' Finally, I had come to the point where I understood what it meant to give my life to God and to trust Him. I said, 'OK, Lord. I want to do what You want me to do, and it doesn't matter if I'm an astronaut or something else.' "
This time he told the truth and was invited to begin training at Johnson in December 1994. But despite his obvious skills in the cockpit, it would be another five years before he was assigned to his first mission. Only two other members of the 20-member astronaut class known as Group 15 waited longer.
"A lot of people didn't know that Rick was one of the last people to fly in his class," said Dave Pitre, an astronaut trainer assigned to Columbia's mission. "And I don't know the reason why, because I think Rick's a great guy. But this is what I speculate.
"You look at his résumé and he's the best. But he's so unassuming. And on the sixth floor [of the astronaut office], there's a lot of competition to be the best, to do the best. There's a lot of jockeying. Rick wouldn't do that, he never did that. He let his actions speak for himself. So he just sat there patiently in line and waited, and waited, and waited. I think he just wanted to make a statement and so they all tried just so hard, I mean, every training session you just got the feeling these guys were putting out 110 percent all the time. Everybody had something to prove on that flight and I think it just bonded them all together.""Columbia is currently targeted toward runway 33 at the Kennedy Space Center; the runway selection continues to be discussed here in Mission Control, however. But for its approach to runway 33, Columbia will perform a right overhead turn to align with the runway of about 214 degrees."
Preparations for the shuttle's arrival at Kennedy were in full swing. The landing support team, made up of engineers and technicians required to deactivate critical systems after touchdown, had gathered at dawn to go over their plans and to prepare their equipment. They were stationed at the northwest end of the broad, 3-mile-long Shuttle Landing Facility runway, expecting Columbia to come in from the southeast.
Shortly after sunrise, buses, limousines, and a fleet of spo...
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