THE COLUMBIA LAUNCHED ON January 16, 2003, and Rick had been gone for sixteen days. I was at Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, with my twelve-year-old daughter, Laura, and my seven-year-old son, Matthew. We were waiting with the other crew families, and we could hear the communication coming over the speakers from Mission Control to the crew. I was very excited and looking forward to all of us being together again as a family.
I didn't pick up on any of the signals that something was wrong until about a minute before the landing. I asked Steve Lindsay, one of the astronauts with us, where I was supposed to be looking and when we were supposed to hear the sonic boom. But he had a strained look on his face. I knew something was wrong. We watched the clock go down to zero, and then it went back up again.
I heard somebody say, "We need to get the families out of here." Somebody grabbed my arm and escorted me out. It was surreal. You're trying to find a logical explanation in your mind. I walked Matthew over to the car, and I said, "Matthew, I don't think Daddy's okay. But we're going to go to crew quarters to find out what's up." And he said, "Okay, Mom." And he got in the car, and he just looked so little.
Laura held on to me in the front seat. Once we got to crew quarters, everyone was walking around in a daze. There's one section for the prime crew, which is where Rick slept just before the shuttle left; Matthew, Laura, and I went into that area. All of Rick's stuff was ready for him to change into. And we laid down on his bed and wept. I called my daddy on my cell phone, and I said, "Daddy, is it bad?" and he said, "Yeah." He was crying. I didn't want details.
We were at crew quarters for what seemed like an eternity. When we were told the vehicle had broken apart, I remember one of the children started wailing. It was just horrible. It seemed like everything was going in slow motion.
We got on a plane and returned to Houston. I remember getting back here and it was only three-thirty in the afternoon. I thought, How can it be the same day? We went back to the house, and there were police officers in front. Neighbors had put notes and flowers on our porch and American flags all over the place. I opened the door and saw the paper chains that Laura and Matthew had hung to welcome Rick home.
Rick and I are both from Amarillo, and all these friends of ours saw the shuttle pass overhead. One of Rick's friends in the Panhandle saw it fly over, and he didn't know anything was wrong. He left a message on our machine. He said, "You looked great. I can't wait to talk to you." A friend in Dallas saw it and then heard the sonic boom. Another friend saw a piece of the shuttle on the side of the road, and she was so shaken she had to pull over.
The first few days after the accident report came out, I was livid. Up until that point, I had felt that it probably had been an accident and it was "one of those things." But when I read the report, I came to understand that the crash was a by-product of NASA culture and bad decision-making. The hardest part was the possibility that the crew could have been rescued. I was upset to learn that Mission Control had been well aware of the problem with the wing and that the crew was never briefed. Rick was given so much responsibility with no authority. That was very, very hard for me.
But I am convinced that they are making humongous efforts to create permanent changes in the culture at NASA, to greatly reduce the chance of this happening again. And I absolutely want the space program to continue—safely.
Obviously my life has drastically changed. I wanted to write a book so I could tell the story of what an incredible husband and father Rick was and what a godly man he was. He left us with a legacy that will affect us the rest of our lives. Rick had set priorities to put God first and family second and a career third. I would have given anything for this not to have happened, yet we don't feel cheated. My children and I are not bitter or angry or resentful. We haven't had that, because Rick made us feel important in the time that he gave us.
High Calling: The Courageous Life and Faith of Space Shuttle Columbia Commander Rick Husband (Thomas Nelson), by Evelyn Husband and co-writer Donna VanLiere, was released January 13.