Almost exactly 17 years after seven U.S. astronauts died in the space shuttle Challenger, tragedy has again come to the U.S. space agency NASA. Seven more crewmembers are dead in the Columbia disaster and suddenly, the crisp, official face of NASA turned human in its outpouring of grief.
"... 3, 2, 1. We have booster ignition and liftoff of space shuttle Columbia with a multitude of national and international space research experiments.
You could hear the excitement of NASA mission control in the Columbia launch countdown on January 16. And so it is every mission. NASA is a U.S. government agency that exudes military-like pride and prepares for each flight exhaustively like a war game. An eavesdropper on communication between a shuttle and mission control hears crisp language devoid of emotion.
But the Columbia disaster has punctured NASA's stony-faced visage to reveal the human core of the agency, wounded with another loss in its extended family.
"We're devastated," said a somber space shuttle program director Ron Dittemore. "There's a certain amount of shock in our system, because we have suffered the loss of seven family members. We're learning to deal with that."
This is not the first such tragedy for NASA. The first was January 27, 1967, when three astronauts perished in a fire that swept through the Apollo-I command module during a ground test. The second occurred on January 28, 1986, when seven astronauts died in the explosion of Challenger shortly after takeoff.
Yet while NASA knows well the dangers involved in spaceflight, Mr. Dittemore said the loss of colleagues is never easy. "Human spaceflight is a passion," he said. "It's an emotional event. When we work together, we work together as family members. Whether it's the loss of a crewmember or a member of our ground teams, it's a sad loss for us. So we are a very close community."
The shuttle Columbia's loss also brought new mourning to a nation shocked by the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. It was evident, for example, among those touring the national museum in Washington dedicated to aviation and spaceflight.
"It's really sad. I was in high school when the Challenger disaster happened back in '86. You know, kind of the same feelings I had that day."
"I feel sad for the families and what they must be going through."
"It's all of us, all humanity. It's a pretty small globe, really. We live in a pretty small world, and the idea for me is it's something we've all been doing together. Now, this is a big setback."
Back at NASA mission control in Houston, Texas, chief shuttle flight director Milt Heflin has witnessed all of NASA's spaceflight disasters since the 1960s. He, like other NASA officials, choked up when speaking about the Columbia loss, and wondered why it is that tragedy seems to unite people more than anything else does. "I've been through three of these," he said. "Each time you see a coming together of, sometimes it's a shame that it takes things like this for this country to pull together and care. It shouldn't. We're good. This country is great. It shouldn't take this kind of thing to cause a coming together."
The head of NASA, Sean O'Keefe, says the agency's immediate focus is twofold - to find the cause of shuttle disaster and to comfort and aid the families of the dead astronauts. He promised them any assistance to help them get through their losses.
For his deputy for spaceflight, former astronaut Bill Readdy, the goals of discovery and comforting are linked in the sense that finding the cause of the accident might help bring closure to the relatives and to NASA. "My promise to the crew and to the crew families is that the investigation we have just launched will find the cause, we'll fix it, and then we'll move on," he said.