Sunday, February 2, 2003

Former astronauts search for explanation

The Associated Press

MIAMI - America's former astronauts reflected on the dangers of space flight Saturday as they mourned the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its crew.

"You prepare for the hazards as best you can and focus on the mission," said former astronaut Kathy Sullivan, now president of the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio.

An exclusive fraternity, the former astronauts' ranks include former Ohio Sen. John Glenn and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who flew on a six-day Columbia shuttle mission in 1986 as a congressman. It was the last mission before the Challenger disaster.

"It's a tragic day not only for America but for the whole world, especially for the families," said Nelson, who was marching in a parade in Tampa when an aide pulled him aside and told him the news.

Nelson, who rushed across the state to the Kennedy Space Center, said people have forgotten the inherent danger involved in space travel.

"The American people have started to think that flying the space shuttle is like getting into a car for a Sunday afternoon drive but it's anything but that," Nelson said. "Space flight is risky business."

Glenn and his wife had just turned on their television in their Maryland home to watch Columbia return home when NASA lost communications with the shuttle.

"Anytime you lose contact like that, there's some big problem," Glenn said. "Of course, once you went for several minutes without any contact, you knew something was terribly wrong."

Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth in 1962. In 1998, at age 77, he became the oldest space traveler when he returned on the shuttle Discovery. Later that year, he retired from the Senate after representing Ohio for 24 years.

Former astronaut Winston Scott, an engineering professor at Florida State University, watched in disbelief as television footage showed the shuttle breaking up.

"Never would I guess that something would go wrong during this phase of flight. But it just goes to show you that this is a volatile business and something could go wrong in any phase in flight," Scott said.

Scott, who logged 24 days in space on two missions on the Columbia and the Endeavour, knew all the Columbia's crew members except Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.

Despite the intense heat, Sullivan said the shuttle is usually calm before landing.

"The vehicle is steady and smooth with just mainly the light show outside the window and the instrumentation reminding you of the physics at work," she said.

Sullivan, a mission specialist on shuttle flights in 1984, 1990 and 1992, was about to board a plane for Columbus when she saw news of the disaster on a television at the airport in Portland, Ore.

"We understand the combination of risk and reward and caution, concern and exhilaration that any flight represents," she said.

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