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NASA Commemorates Astronauts Lost in Line of Duty - 2004-01-30


Flags are flying at half-staff at all U.S. space agency centers to commemorate the astronauts who have died in the line of duty over the years. The latest to perish were the seven crew members of the space shuttle Columbia one year ago Sunday.

Those who are superstitious might read something into the fact that NASA's three deadly accidents over the decades have all occurred at the same time of year.

Three astronauts perished on January 27, 1967 when flames roared through their Apollo 1 capsule during a launch pad test.

On January 28, 1986, the shuttle Challenger blew up on its way to orbit, killing seven.

And Columbia's seven astronauts went down in a hail of flaming debris February 1 last year.

This commonality allowed NASA to combine its tribute to fallen astronauts into a Day of Remembrance on Thursday, with agency flags lowered to half-staff through Monday.

In addition, NASA has named the landing site of its Mars rover Spirit in honor of the Columbia crew and plans to do the same for the Challenger team where the Opportunity rover touched down.

It is the Columbia astronauts who are getting the bulk of the attention, with several observances scheduled around Washington and the rest of the country through early next week. This includes ceremonies at one of the year's most watched sports events, Sunday's Super Bowl football contest in Houston, Texas, where NASA's astronaut corps is headquartered.

"I think it'll be a sad time again," said Jim Kelly. "It's hard for it not to be sad."

"I consider everything we do on our flight to be a dedication to that crew," said astronaut Jim Kelly, the pilot for the next shuttle mission planned for September or October to the international space station, the first flight since Columbia's demise. "You can't feel like going back into space isn't in their memory to a large extent."

Pilot Kelly, like NASA's other fliers, grieved over the loss of the Columbia crew. The astronaut corps is a tightly knit group, akin to a military unit. The commander of the next shuttle flight, Eileen Collins, says the Columbia team were her friends.

"You know, I miss those guys and I think about them every day," said Jim Kelly. "They were just fantastic people, and I find that as time goes on, I draw strength from my relationships with them more than sadness."

By coincidence, the head of NASA, Sean O'Keefe, had met with the families of the crew that died aboard the shuttle Challenger shortly before Columbia disintegrated. The meeting took place 17 years after Challenger went down, but he says he would have no idea how relevant his talks with the families would turn out to be just days later.

"The stories, the commentary, the reflections they had were profound - their recollections not only of that day - but of the days and the months and the years that followed that," he said. "All of them certainly have worked through the consequences of the tragedy, here it is 18 years ago now but in very different ways to deal with a calamity like that."

The implication is that those closest to the seven dead Columbia astronauts will also go through the same healing process. Another who will fly on the next shuttle mission, Charlie Camarda, says one thing that will help NASA and the nation recover from the disaster is the resumption of flight after a long layoff and extensive safety modifications to the orbiters.

"I hope it's going to be a tremendous boost psychologically to this country and to the space effort because we really need it," said Charlie Camarda. "And we need to get back to flying, and we need to get back to flying safely. Along those lines, practically our entire mission is the result of the Columbia tragedy. These next couple of flights are very much experimental flights. We're looking at new technologies and we have to ensure that these technologies will be suitable."

Commander Eileen Collins says the next shuttle flight will commemorate the Columbia crew in several ways, including a special design for the mission emblem.