Columbia tragedy: a decade later

It’s hard at times when international stories strike so very close to home.

Ten years ago, one of those stories ripped the hearts out of Amarillo residents. We awoke on a gorgeous Saturday morning, Feb. 1, 2003. Perhaps we turned on the TV and learned the stunning news. The space shuttle Columbia had disintegrated while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere after completing a successful 16-day mission.

The man at the controls? Amarillo native Rick Husband, who was flying his second shuttle mission and commanding his first one. Husband and his six colleagues perished in the tragic event that we watched in horror on our TV screens. Streams of fiery debris were burning up over Texas as Columbia sought to find its way back to its Florida landing site.

KACV-TV is going to take us back to that terrible day this weekend. “Man on a Mission” airs at 3 p.m. Sunday; and at 3:30, “Face to Face,” hosted by Ellen Robertson Green, will re-air Green’s interview with Evelyn Husband, the gallant wife of Amarillo’s fallen space icon.

This one hurt in a unique way. Rick Husband was not just “from” Amarillo; he was “of” this community. Yes, he resided in Houston, where he trained for space travel. But in reality, he never left home. His mother lived here, as did Evelyn Husband’s parents. Rick and Evelyn returned home frequently to reconnect with their Amarillo roots.

Allow me this personal note. I had the pleasure of talking to Rick Husband on two occasions, both times at First Presbyterian Church, where Evelyn’s family worshipped. My wife and I were aquainted with Evelyn’s parents, Jean and Dan Neely. Rick came in August 1999 to speak to our congregation about how he achieved his lifelong goal of becoming an astronaut. I then spoke with him privately for a few minutes during a later visit, telling him of my intense desire to fly into space one day. He had been named commander of the ill-fated Columbia mission. I joked that I would give anything for a ride on the shuttle — and he gave me that “You’ve got to be kidding” look. Still, he was gracious and patient.

Rick and Evelyn’s ties to this community were deep and tight. They had many longtime friends here who mourned deeply the events of Feb. 1, 2003. And although I cannot claim to have known either of them, I joined the rest of the community in trying to come to grips with the loss we all witnessed on our TV screens.

Rick Husband died doing what he loved. His very public death still hurts many of us deeply.

***

Take some time Sunday to look back at a part of our community’s history and how it intersects with the rest of the world. And then next Thursday, settle in for a two-part tribute on KACV: “Space Shuttle Columbia, Mission of Hope” at 8 p.m. highlights a Torah scroll, recovered from the Holocaust, that was taken aboard the Columbia by Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut to fly on a shuttle; at 9 p.m., “NOVA: Space Shuttle Disaster” offers a look at NASA and its response to the tragedy.

A good many Amarillo and Texas Panhandle residents may never shed their feeling of loss over what happened to one of our own and his brave space travelers.

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