Ten years ago this week, on February 1, 2003, America and the world received the tragic news that Mission Control at Johnson Space Center had lost contact with the Space Shuttle Columbia while it was crossing the heavens at nearly 15,000 mph.
At approximately 9:00 a.m., within seconds of the last communication received from the Columbia crew, residents in Texas and Louisiana reported hearing a loud noise and seeing debris falling from the skies.
When the shuttle failed to land on schedule at 9:16 a.m., NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe notified President George W. Bush and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge. The flag mounted on the countdown clock at Kennedy Space Center was lowered to half-staff. Soon after, the President ordered the nation’s flags to fly at half-staff and in a live television address, alerted the nation, “The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home.”
Six Americans and one Israeli—the first astronaut in Israel’s history—comprised the heroic crew of the Columbia. They were: Colonel Rick Husband, Lt. Colonel Michael Anderson, Commander Laurel Clark, Captain David Brown, Commander William McCool, Dr. Kalpana Chawla, and Colonel in the Israeli Air Force, Ilan Ramon.
They left behind family members, including parents, spouses, and young children. Commander William McCool’s parents remembered waking up early on the morning of February 1 to watch the shuttle make its way across the sky to Florida.
Commander McCool’s mother said, “It was a very beautiful sight. I guess if you will, it was the last time we saw him.”
In the years following the tragedy, memorials across the country were constructed in honor of the Columbia crew. In 2003, Amarillo’s airport was renamed the Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport in honor of the Amarillo native and commander of the Space Shuttle Columbia. In 2004, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe dedicated a memorial in honor of the crew at Arlington National Cemetery in a private ceremony for family members, friends and former astronauts.
In 2011, the Patricia Huffman Smith Museum opened to the public in Hemphill, Texas, which was a key search area for debris in the days following the disaster. Members of the Hemphill community and Texans from all over volunteered in droves to assist NASA in the search for debris and contributed to the recovery of more than 80,000 pieces that would prove critical to the investigation. The museum is dedicated to preserving the memory of the Space Shuttle Columbia, the first of our nation’s shuttle fleet to journey into the heavens, its 28 missions, and the seven astronauts who lost
their lives on its final mission.
This year, on February 1, the Sabine County Columbia Memorial Committee, which spearheaded the museum’s creation, will host “The Legacy Lives on: Remembering Columbia” 10th anniversary memorial. Today we remember with gratitude the seven souls who were lost aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. In pursuit of knowledge and the exploration of our universe, these brave individuals faced exceptional dangers and ultimately sacrificed their lives in the name of science and exploration.
On this tenth anniversary of their death, I hope we each honor their legacy by challenging ourselves to dream, to achieve more, and to reach farther than ever thought possible. We must continue the noble work of the Columbia and her crew and remain a nation that is steadfastly committed to the exploration of that enormous expanse of unvisited territory—the next frontier.
By U.S. Sen. John Cornyn
Senator Cornyn serves on the Finance and Judiciary Committees. He serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee’s Immigration, Refugees and Border Security subcommittee. He served previously as Texas Attorney General, Texas Supreme Court Justice, and Bexar County District Judge.