He was an ace astronaut who turned a childhood dream to explore the stars into real-life voyages that earned him 235 hours and 13 minutes in space. He was a spiritual husband and father who sang in the church choir. He was a shuttle commander who was the pride of his Texas hometown and the California university whose sweat shirt he took with him on his final mission.

Rick Douglas Husband, 45, was the Air Force colonel who commanded the space shuttle Columbia on its 16-day scientific mission before it disintegrated in flames above north-central Texas yesterday. Shortly before last month's launch, Husband told the Orlando Sentinel that he could remember sitting in front of the television in Amarillo as a boy, mesmerized by the launches at the dawn of the Space Age.

"From the very time I was 4 years old, when the Mercury program first got started, I was in front of the TV for every one of the launches," Husband said. "And for the whole time I was growing up, for as long as I can remember, anytime anyone asked me what I wanted to be, it was, 'I want to be an astronaut.' "

Upon graduating from high school in Amarillo and earning a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Texas Tech University in 1980, Husband began pursuing his dream. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Force and attended pilot training at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma. He was soon teaching others to fly F-4E fighters and later served as a test pilot for all five models of the F-15, according to biographical information. He would log more than 3,800 hours of flight time in more than 40 types of aircraft.

Husband studied mechanical engineering at Fresno State University in California through an extension program at nearby Edwards Air Force Base. He graduated with a master's degree in 1990. Four years later, NASA selected Husband as an astronaut candidate. After a year of training, he represented the Astronaut Office on a number of projects, including space shuttle upgrades and studies of a return to the moon and travel to Mars.

Being an astronaut stirred Husband's emotions as a husband, father of two children and a Christian. "I am a strong believer and a Christian," Husband told the Fresno Bee in November while training for the Columbia mission at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "I look out that window at what a beautiful creation God has made."

In the Houston suburb of Clear Lake City, a short drive from the NASA space center, Husband was well known among the 4,000 members of the interdenominational Grace Community Church. He kept up his many church duties while training, singing in the choir on Sundays and helping to lead a weekly prayer group for fathers called Dads in the Gap, said Garrett Booth, 28, the church's executive pastor.

Husband, who lived in Houston with his wife, Evelyn, and two children, Laura and Matthew, may have longed to be in the skies, but a personable quality kept him solidly down-to-earth, Booth and churchgoers said. They recalled his eagerness to sign autographs for kids at church events. "Even with all successes, you could sit down and talk to him for a few minutes and feel like he was just one of the guys," Booth said. Columbia astronaut Michael Anderson also attended the church, Booth said.

Before the Columbia mission began in January, the church held a special service for the astronauts. "They both addressed the congregation, and we prayed for them," Booth said.

For his first flight aboard the shuttle Discovery in 1999, hundreds of Husband's friends and neighbors headed to Kennedy Space Center to see him off. Wire service reports at the time said Husband carried souvenirs from the five Amarillo schools he attended, as well as a seal from his hometown's City Hall.

Husband did the same on the Columbia mission, taking with him a red "Fresno State Bulldogs" sweat shirt, university officials said. "He was going to bring it back personally and present it to the university," campus spokesman Tom Uribes said.

Rick Douglas Husband lived in Houston with children Laura, left, and Matthew, and wife Evelyn. On his flight, he reportedly took a red Fresno State Bulldogs sweat shirt with him.Being an astronaut stirred Rick Douglas Husband as a husband, father and Christian.