Fallen Astronauts Spanned the Globe of Diversity

Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 2, 2003

More than any other NASA space mission, the crew of the Columbia represented the planet it soared above. The seven astronauts who perished yesterday came from America, India and Israel.

During the 16-day mission, each nation had cheered on its homegrown heroes. In India, well-wishers calculated when the Columbia would pass over the country so that they could wave to Kalpana Chawla, the 41-year-old astronaut on board.

In Israel, schoolchildren papered their bulletin boards with the face of Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli to launch into space.

And at a church in Amarillo, Tex., Sunday school students drew spaceships with prayers underneath for native son Rick D. Husband, the 45-year-old commander of the Columbia.

The diversity of the crew -- three white American men, a white American woman, a black American man, an Israeli national and an Indian immigrant -- was what stuck many Americans about yesterday's tragedy.

The astronauts were a combination of steely test pilots and modern-day engineering phenoms. Ramon was a bona fide combat hero, flying missions in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the Lebanon war in 1982. He reportedly took part in Israel's bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981, setting back Baghdad's quest for nuclear weapons by years.

Last week, Israelis seemed to care more about Ramon's mission than they did about the national elections. The 48-year-old air force colonel and father of four was pure poetry when he described his wonderment at the galaxies. By going up in space, the pilot knew he was leaving the dangerous and bloody ground of Israel down below.

"From space, Israel looks like it does on a map; small but charming," Ramon told Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last week, by video hookup.

Ramon was chosen as Israel's first astronaut in 1997 and moved to Houston the next year to train for his shuttle flight. When he went up in space, he carried his country with him. His mother and grandmother had survived the Auschwitz death camp, and Ramon tucked in his space bag a picture that a Jewish boy had drawn before he died in the Holocaust: It was what Earth must have looked like from the moon.

Cmdr. Rick Husband was all astronaut. The 45-year-old Air Force colonel often said he could remember watching his first launch as a 4-year-old boy in Texas when the Mercury space program was underway. From then on, Husband honed his destiny.

The former test pilot graduated from high school in Amarillo. After graduating from Texas Tech University in 1980, he received his pilot training at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma.

Husband was accepted into NASA's astronaut program in 1994 and took his first space voyage in 1999, serving as the Discovery's co-pilot. More than a thousand of his friends and neighbors from Amarillo traveled to the Kennedy Space Center to wave goodbye to him.

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