Spaceflight Now STS-107

'Hail Columbia'
Posted: February 7, 2003

Photo: NASA
Former astronaut Robert Crippen, pilot of the shuttle Columbia for its maiden voyage in 1981, remembered NASA's oldest orbiter today in a moving tribute before a throng of workers gathered on the broad shuttle runway at the Kennedy Space Center.

It was at that same runway that technicians, engineers, family members and journalists gathered last Saturday to welcome Columbia and its seven-member crew back to Earth after a successful 16-day science mission. But they waited in vain. Columbia was destroyed just 16 minutes before its anticipated arrival when it veered out of control in the thin air 200,000 feet above Texas.

Crippen, who helped oversee NASA's initial response to the 1986 Challenger disaster, first flew in space aboard Columbia on April 12, 1981, when he and commander John Young rocketed away from pad 39A. More than two decades later, he delivered Columbia's eulogy, struggling to keep his emotions in check as he remembered the shuttle and its fallen crew.

"We're gathered here this morning to honor and salute the Columbia crew and mission STS-107," he said. "The grief in the hearts of the crew's families and the entire NASA family, which includes all of our contractor community which supports the agency, is very heavy. Still, this crew lived lives that deserve our celebration. Yes, they were cut short. But these brave men and women lived their lives to the fullest doing much more in their time here on Earth than many can imagine.

"Words at a time like this seem weak. They don't fully communicate the depth of our feelings. The NASA family speaks much clearer with actions. The action that is being taken to find the cause of the accident, correct it and continue the crew's journey of discovery in space is the grandest tribute that we can pay to them. I'm certain that is what they would have wanted.

"It is fitting we are gathered here on the shuttle runway for this event," Crippen said. "It was here last Saturday that family and friends waited anxiously to celebrate with the crew their successful mission and safe return to Earth. It never happened. I'm sure that Columbia, which had traveled millions of miles and made that fiery re-entry 27 times before, struggled mightily in those last moments to bring her crew home safely once again. She wasn't successful.

"Columbia was a fine ship. She was named after Robert Gray's exploration ship, which sailed out of Boston Harbor in the 18th century. Columbia and the other orbiters were all named after great explorer ships, because that is their mission, to explore the unknown.

"Columbia was hardly a thing of beauty, except to those of us who loved and cared for her," Crippen said. "She was often bad mouthed for being a little heavy in the rear end. But many of us can relate to that. Many said she was old and past her prime. Still, she had only lived barely a quarter of her design life; in years, she was only 22. Columbia had a great many missions ahead of her. She, along with the crew, had her life snuffed out in her prime.

"I was here at the shuttle runway in March of 1978 when Columbia first arrived at the Kennedy Space Center. She came in on the back of a 747 escorted by Deke Slayton in a T-38. She certainly wasn't very pretty at that time. A large number of her tiles had not been installed and many that had were not adhering very well. KSC management made a fairly unpopular statement at the time, that it was going to take several years to get her ready to fly. They were right.

"Readied for launch by the loving care of the Kennedy team, the same care they've given to all 28 of her flights, she was finally ready to fly in April 1981. John Young and I were privileged to take her on that maiden flight. She performed magnificently, the world's greatest electric flying machine was what John described her as.

"Because she was a little heavy, she didn't get some of the more glamorous missions. But she was our leader in doing science on orbit. Just as she was doing with this crew in Spacehab on mission STS-107, microgravity scientific exploration was her bag. She carried Spacelab numerous times, studying materials processing, life sciences, all of which were focused on giving us a better life here on Earth.

"Columbia also helped us better understand about the heavens and understand the origins of the universe with several missions, including Astro, also deploying the most advanced X-ray observatory every built, the Chandra X-ray Telescope, and by her very recent Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. Just as the crew has, Columbia has left us quite a legacy.

"There's heavy grief in our hearts, which will diminish in time, but it will never go away and we will never forget," Crippen said. "Hail Rick, Willie, KC, Mike, Laurel, Dave and Ilan. Hail Columbia."

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