Astronaut Rick D. Husband returned from his first trip to outer space in the summer of 1999 with pictures of plankton swirls in the Black Sea and fresh-from-orbit gifts for the small Texas airport where he had learned to fly. He also carried a striking message.

Being an astronaut "was not the absolute culmination of everything there is to life on Earth," he told the packed sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church in his hometown of Amarillo, Tex., one August morning. "As exciting as a ride on the space shuttle may seem, I have to say that it's not as important as my relationship with Jesus. If it came to a point where I had to choose one or the other, I'd give up the shuttle ride in a minute."

Husband, 45, made two trips to the stars and flew more than 40 types of aircraft as a decorated pilot for the Air Force. But those who knew him say his greatest accomplishment was balancing a lifelong pursuit to become an astronaut with a steadfast devotion to his family and his Lord.

When he gave autographs, he scrawled two numbers after his name -- STS-96, his first mission as part of a NASA crew that docked with the international space station, and Proverbs 3: 5-6: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight."

After failing three times to become an astronaut candidate, he said, he prayed on his fourth attempt to help him pass a crucial eye exam with his troublesome 20/50 left eye. His wife, Evelyn, fasted and alerted the prayer chain at their church. He passed, and was finally on his way to Houston.

Husband was the Air Force colonel with the righteous stuff, a soft-spoken, dark-haired Texan drawn to NASA not for the showboat thrills of rocketing through space but for the humbling divinity of soaring through the heavens.

"There is no way that you can look at the stars, at the Earth, at the moon, and not come to realize that there is a God out there who has a plan and who laid out the universe."

- -- Rick Husband

The man who led the shuttle Columbia on its 28th and fateful mission was the antithesis of NASA's space cowboys of yesteryear, leading a prayer group for fathers at his church in a Houston suburb and adding his baritone to the 100-member choir. He was a seasoned pilot who flew F-4 and F-15 fighter jets but relaxed on the Columbia mission with a recording of the student choir of his alma mater, Texas Tech University.

In the dusty Texas Panhandle plains of Amarillo, where some of the 180,000 locals say that if you wear out one pair of boots there you'll stay forever, they remember a 5-year-old boy -- one of two sons born to a meatpacking plant owner and his wife, Doug and Jane Husband -- in the back yard peeking at the stars with a new telescope.

At Texas Tech in nearby Lubbock, they recalled an enthusiastic young man who found time for engineering classes, the campus choir and zany impersonations of "Saturday Night Live" characters. At Edwards Air Force Base in Lancaster, Calif., they remembered a test pilot and instructor who eagerly took rookies under his wing. Among the ranks of NASA astronauts, they spoke of a crew member some trusted with their lives.

"It was really nice to know that before you went out the door into the vacuum of space you had someone as conscientious as Rick ensuring that all of the critical systems on the space suit were operating properly," said Tammy Jernigan, 43, a former astronaut who relied on Husband to monitor her gear during her space walk in 1999. Later, when the shuttle undocked from the station, ever so carefully, it was Husband's hands on the controls.

In Amarillo, people had looked upon Husband's adventures in space as something of a local triumph. Many said Husband was an astronaut who never forgot his more earthbound family and friends. After his 1999 mission, he spoke at the civic center, granted exclusive interviews to student journalists and was inducted into his high school's hall of fame.

Officials at Tradewind Airport, where Husband learned to fly as a teenager, got an unexpected package one day from their most famous student. It included an airport patch that he had taken with him to space and a certificate signed by all the astronauts. "We all thought that was the neatest thing," said Mark Turner, airport operations manager. "This was something he did for the airport out of the pride of having learned to fly here."

The skies had captivated Husband since the age of 4. He watched America take its first journeys to space on television and played with toy airplanes. "If I heard an airplane going over outside, my head was always looking up, trying to see where they were," Husband said at First Presbyterian.

"Anytime anybody asked me what it was I wanted to do, I told them I wanted to be an astronaut."

-- Rick Husband

A longtime friend remembered Husband flipping through an airplane magazine in eighth-grade Spanish class. In a vocational class, Husband recalled an assignment in which everyone picked something they wanted to be and wrote a report on it. He picked an astronaut. "Everybody in class laughed," he said.

The desire never faded. At Amarillo High School, from where Husband graduated in 1975, his dreams of taking to the skies were well known. He got his pilot's license around 17, and classmates chuckled remembering their white-knuckled rides over Panhandle towns in a Cessna, jack rabbits scattering for cover on the runways.

But there was another side of Husband many recalled, one more in tune with the arts than the skies. Husband danced in a school production of "Fiddler on the Roof" and sang in the school's choir. George Biffle, 61, of Canyon, Tex., the former school choir director, said Husband was among the finest students he ever had, performing as a junior and senior at Rotary Clubs and music festivals close to 40 times in a 180-day school year while keeping up his grades.

"He and eight or nine of those young people lived in the choir room," Biffle said. "They'd get together and sing in small groups."

Husband pursued the perfection of his baritone at Texas Tech, where he joined the university choir. Wes Knapp, 46, of Amarillo, lived next door to Husband in Murdough Hall, and the two became fast friends, laughing their way through Saturday evenings with a mountain of nachos watching the glory days of "Saturday Night Live" in the late 1970s. "He's got this big grin," said Knapp, among a host of Husband's classmates and friends invited to his two launches. "That's Rick. Every picture I've got of him, he has this big grin."

Husband's college career was focused on becoming an astronaut, Knapp said, after he wrote to NASA asking about the requirements to become a shuttle pilot. Husband viewed their response as a kind of life plan. NASA wanted pilots with 1,000 hours flight time in high-performance aircraft, with test pilot and military experience included, as well as a graduate degree in a technical field and high marks on a physical. Husband would eventually accomplish all of them.

It was at Texas Tech that he met his college sweetheart and future wife, Evelyn Neely, also of Amarillo. They were married in February 1982 at First Presbyterian Church. They had two children, Laura and Matthew.

After graduating from Texas Tech with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1980, Husband was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Force. He spent the next several years training himself and others to master the F-4, F-4E and the F-15 at air force bases in Oklahoma, Georgia and California. He also traveled to England as an exchange test pilot with the Royal Air Force.

Lt. Col. Edward A. Cabrera, 42, who is known as "Fast Eddie" at Edwards Air Force Base in Lancaster, Calif., flew fighter planes with Husband. "He was a gifted pilot, very much the consummate professional," said Cabrera, who looked to the older Husband for guidance when both were testing an early version of laser-guided weapon systems. "He very much helped train me and made sure I grew up as a young fighter pilot the right way."

Husband received his master's from Fresno State University in central California in 1990 through an extension program at the Edwards base. In December 1994, he was, finally, selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA.

In 1992, on his third application, he had been invited to Houston for interviews. Worried about his eyesight, he got hard contact lenses on the advice of a friend, hoping to improve his vision on the eye exam, he told those gathered at First Presbyterian. But on a NASA questionnaire, he answered no when asked if he had ever worn them.

He said he came to realize that if he had become an astronaut through a lie,

"If I had not gone about that in the right way, if I had sacrificed my relationship with Jesus or my relationship with my family, and looked back at my life, being an astronaut wouldn't really matter much at all."

-- Rick Husband

On his fourth application without contacts, he passed the eye exam. He reported to the Johnson Space Center in March 1995 to begin a year of training and evaluation. "It was not a surprise to those who knew him closely," said Mark White, 46, an Amarillo friend of Husband since junior high.

On Sunday, one day after the Columbia disintegrated over Texas, people in Amarillo gathered at First Presbyterian once again. Senior Pastor Jim Bankhead played an audio of Husband's 1999 sermon, and as his voice filled the sanctuary, people gently wept. "There were one or two times when he said, 'When my life is over. . . . ' That shakes you up," Bankhead said.

Amarillo Mayor Trent Sisemore said the city is planning to name something in town -- a public building, street or park -- in honor of Husband. "I think that Rick Husband actually exemplified our city," Sisemore, 41, said. "He loved the Lord, he loved his family, and he loved his country."

Husband's fellow Discovery astronauts used to tease him about wearing his Texas roots for all to see, so he took the crew to see Amarillo shortly after they landed. One day at the Big Texan, a steakhouse featuring waiters in 10-gallon hats and a free 72-ounce steak to any diner who can finish one in an hour, Husband showed up with the crew, and Hody Porterfield caught his eye. Husband asked for a picture with Porterfield, 55, a buckskin-wearing historian portraying an early American trapper and trader.

"Why do you want a picture with me?" Porterfield asked.

"Because," Husband said, "we're both pioneers."

Researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

Commander Rick D. Husband sits in the cockpit of space shuttle Columbia during a simulated launch countdown on Dec. 20 in a training session at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. Hometown residents of Amarillo, Tex., looked upon Husband's adventures in space as something of a local triumph. Husband works with the Biological Research in Canister experiment Jan. 23 during the Columbia's mission. The shuttle commander relaxed on the mission with a recording of the student choir of his alma mater, Texas Tech University. Laura Husband, right, daughter of Rick D. Husband, comforts her mother, Evelyn Husband, at a memorial service.