posted 02-04-2003 06:50 AM
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
I live in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. As such, I was out in my front yard with my wife and my 8-year-old granddaughter on Saturday morning, 02/01/03. We were hoping to see Columbia fly over on its way home to Florida.
I did not know what to expect that morning. At 8:00 AM local time, the sky is pretty bright from the morning sun. I've seen two re-entries of shuttles before in Texas, but they were always during the darkness of night.
We watched on NASA TV until Columbia was well over New Mexico before heading outdoors. At first I saw a white object off in the distance. I initially thought that perhaps was Columbia. It was not. It turned out to be merely a far away airplane.
Then Columbia appeared. I must give my wife credit for the initial sighting, as I was busy trying to point out the distant white airplane to my granddaughter. I cannot begin to convey how spectacular the view of Columbia was. Remember at this time I had no idea what we were witnessing, so it was an awesome sight.
The intensity of the light was amazing. Colors seemed to alternate between whites and reds. To my unaided human eye, flashes of greens seemed to spin off. In retrospect it was not unlike a Roman candle. I must emphasize that I still did not realize what I was seeing. I snapped photos with my digital camera as quickly as it could store them.
The glowing orb traversing the sky from right to left as we were looking south. It left behind a white contrail. Was this unusual? At the time I did not know. On past re-entries I've seen there has been a contrail left behind that consisted of a glowing ion cloud.
Then the orb moved beyond our field of view. I ran down the sidewalk to try and get a better view. All the time, I was uttering shouts of joy and awe. I was like a child on Christmas morning.
We ran back into the house to view the remainder of the re-entry on NASA TV. I was so awe struck by the sight I had just seen. I stopped watching the television, and went to my computer to print out the digital images.
I ran back to the television after kicking off a print. Since NASA TV was still showing the ground track, I was off back to the printer.
A very loud sonic boom shook the house. It seemed interesting at the time that it was louder than usual. What was not unusual was that the shock wave arrived well after the vehicle was over the horizon. That delay seemed typical of other re-entries I've experienced.
A second time I returned to the television. The scene on the television had not changed. It seemed surreal as if time had stopped. In the back of my mind I knew that the television should now be showing Columbia on the runway at KSC. What kind of broadcast glitch could be causing this?
That is when I heard the NASA PAO mention something about securing data. All the air was sucked out of me; at that instant I knew that Columbia and its crew were lost.
What had begun, as a grand and glorious morning had now turned very cold and sinister. The photos that I had captured revealed that Columbia had become a chariot of death.
The phone began to ring as space friends from around town, around the country, and around the world began to call. No one knew what to say, but no one wanted to be alone.
My thoughts and prayers go out for the seven astronauts, their families, and NASA employees everywhere.
Godspeed to the crew of STS-107.
As a poscript let me add that I have forwarded my photos to the appropriate place at NASA.
My 8 year old granddaughter has handled this situation amazingly well, much better than I did on Saturday.