They were the best America has to offer, the astronauts who perished as their spaceship, the shuttle Columbia, disintegrated upon re-entry to earth’s atmosphere less than an hour before its scheduled landing. They represented a cross-section of America: two were women; one was born in India; one was African-American. Six of the seven, including the first Israeli citizen to go into space, served in the military, three in the Navy, three in the Air Force (including the Israeli, Colonel Ilan Ramon).
All Americans, indeed all people of good will across the globe, feel the pain of the loss of these seven explorers. While their deaths are tragic, some comfort may be taken in the knowledge that they were doing what they wanted to do and were so well-qualified and trained to do: exploring the "final frontier," adding to humankind’s knowledge of the cosmos.
The seven (shown left to right):
Captain David M. Brown, a 46-year-old Navy doctor who also trained as a pilot - and graduated No. 1 in his naval aviation class. He was chosen for this mission in part because of his credentials in medicine and biology. In his last e-mail to his parents - Capt. Brown had never married - wrote, "My most moving moment was reading a letter that Ilan [Ramon] brought from a Holocaust survivor whose seven-year-old daughter died. I was stunned such a beautiful planet could harbor such bad things."
Colonel Rick D. Husband, a 45-year-old former test pilot for the Air Force, was living his lifelong dream. It took him four tries to be accepted by NASA for training as an astronaut. This was his second foray into space: he had been the pilot of the space shuttle Discovery in the first mission in which a shuttle crew docked with the international space station. He leaves a wife and a young son and daughter.
Dr. Laurel Salton Clark, 41, a Navy commander, had dived with Navy SEALs, conducted medical evacuations from submarines, and had served as a flight surgeon aboard the Marine Attack Squadron of the Year. Space was her final challenge. In an e-mail from space to close friends and relatives, she wrote: "Hello from above our magnificent planet earth. The perspective is truly awe-inspiring. Even the stars have a special brightness." She leaves her husband and an 8-year-old son.
Dr. Kalpana Chawla, 41, born in India and a naturalized American citizen, was by any measure a brilliant student, quiet and modest - and determined. To go into space was her lifelong dream. In 1997, she achieved her ambition, becoming the first India-born woman in space - and a hero in her native land.
Lieutenant Colonel Michael P. Anderson, son of an Air Force serviceman, dreamed of the cosmos and space flight as a young boy. "I can’t remember ever thinking that I couldn’t do it," the 43-year-old Air Force colonel was quoted in the alumni newsletter of his alma mater, the University of Washington. "I never had any serious doubts about it. It was just a matter of when." In addition to his parents, he is survived by his wife.
Commander William C. McCool, 41, followed in the footsteps of his father, a chief petty officer, in joining the Navy. An accomplished athlete - he excelled as a runner and a swimmer - he graduated second in his 1983 class from the U.S. Naval Academy. An experienced test pilot, he was considered one of the Navy’s elite airmen. He leaves behind a wife and three sons.
Colonel Ilan Ramon, a 48-year-old son and grandson of Holocaust survivors, was proud to be the first citizen of his country to go into space. "Every time you are the first, it is meaningful," said the Israeli air force veteran, who fought in the Yom Kippur war in 1973 and in the Lebanon conflict a decade later. "I am told my flight is meaningful to a lot of Jewish people around the world. Being the first Israeli astronaut, I feel I am representing all Jews and all Israelis." He is survived by his wife and four children aged 6 to 14.
We at Veterans Advantage join in celebrating their achievements and in mourning their loss. Their service, and their ultimate sacrifice, must not be soon forgotten.