I had the honor of attending the NASA Day of Remembrance ceremonies at Kennedy Space Center this morning, as a guest of Mike Leinbach. As much as I thought I was emotionally prepared for the event, I could not help being moved to tears several times during the course of the service.
During the opening acknowledgments, I was elated that Eileen Collins recognized Greg Cohrs from the US Forest Service for his tireless efforts to recover Columbia and her crew, from the day of the accident until the day recovery operations ended. Eileen said that NASA will never forget the support that Greg and the people of East Texas rendered during the recovery of Columbia.
This year’s memorial program focused on four astronauts who perished about fifty years ago: Elliot M. See, Jr., Charles A. Bassett II, Clifton C. “CC” Williams, and Michael Adams. With the exception of X-15 pilot Adams, none of them had the opportunity to make it into space.
Most touching to me was listening to the children of the fallen astronauts, who were still young when their fathers perished. They lost their fathers without having the opportunity to get to know who they really were. Charlie Bassett’s daughter Karen Stevenson was only eight years old when her father was killed. She said, “I was just beginning to realize that he was more than just my daddy: that people cared about him, depended on him, trusted him, admired him…that he was smart, studious, gregarious, warm and funny and dedicated, and maybe just a teensy bit geeky.”
Tal Ramon, the son of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died in the Columbia accident, traveled from Israel for the event. Tal has lost not only his father in 2003 but also his brother Asaf, an Israeli Air Force pilot who died in a training accident in 2009. Tal is using music to help him deal with the loss of his father and brother. He sang and played his stunningly beautiful composition “Dmut” (Courage) and played a piano solo “Victoria” (Victory). His profoundly moving music said more than words could ever convey, and it touched a very deep part of my soul.
Eileen Collins then reverently read the names of the fallen astronauts, and with that music still in our ears, it was impossible not to feel an overwhelming sadness at the loss of people who held such promise—but also to know that they died doing what they truly enjoyed.
The ceremony then moved out to the Space Mirror, where Bob Cabana (Director of Kennedy Space Center) and Therrin Protze (Chief Operating Officer of Delaware North) laid a wreath emblazoned “Forever Remembered.” The rest of us were then invited to twine the stem of a rose or carnation into the fence in front of the mirror. It was a simple and beautiful way to bring closure to the event.
Afterward, I enjoyed connecting with people I’ve met over the years during my many visits to the Space Coast—Lee Solid, Bob Sieck, Russ Lloyd, Ann Micklos, Gerry Schumann, Steve Coester, and Jean Wright, just to name a few who were there. I admire their contributions and envy their connections to the space program. Their careers have included many long days and much thankless effort, but all of it has been important work. We couldn’t be exploring the universe without people like them.
Greg Cohrs, his wife Sandra and his son Adam, and my wife Jane and I then met up with Mike Ciannilli, director of KSC’s Columbia Research and Preservation Office. Mike took us up to the Columbia Room on the 16th floor of the Vehicle Assembly Building. I had the honor of visiting the room in June 2015 when I first began working on the book. However, Greg and his family had not seen it before. The room is currently in transition. Mike has been working to upgrade the room to better fit its intended purpose—as a learning laboratory rather than merely a warehouse of Columbia‘s debris.
Being in the room with Greg and his family was a powerful experience. Greg and Sandra had found pieces of Columbia‘s debris on their property in Hemphill after the accident. Greg of course managed the search operations for Columbia‘s crew in Sabine County, Texas, and then helped manage the debris recovery operations in East Texas after that. Adam had taken two days off from college a week after the accident to help search for the crew. And Mike Ciannilli had flown as a spotter on helicopters out of Palestine, Texas during the debris recovery. Again, I hold these people with utmost admiration for what they did in very tough times.