Former astronauts search for explanation to loss of Columbia

Published: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 1:46 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 1:46 p.m.

MIAMI (AP) - Astronauts from across the nation mourned the loss of the space shuttle Columbia Saturday, recalling their past journeys to space for clues to what went wrong.

An exclusive fraternity, their ranks include former Ohio Sen. John Glenn and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who flew on a six-day Columbia shuttle mission in January 1986 as a congressman. It was the last mission before the Challenger disaster.

"It's a tragic day not only for America but for the whole world, especially for the families," Nelson said.

Nelson, a first-term Democrat, was marching in the annual Gasparilla parade in Tampa when an aide pulled him aside and told him the news. He immediately rushed across the state to the Kennedy Space Center.

His thoughts drifted back to the explosion of the Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986 and "those memories almost 17 years to the day." Nelson said many Americans have forgotten the inherent danger involving space travel.

"The American people have started to think that flying the space shuttle is like getting into a car for a Sunday afternoon drive but it's anything but that," Nelson said. "Space flight is risky business."

Nelson said it was too early to speculate on the cause of the shuttle's demise but he planned to work with the Senate Commerce Committee to investigate the case.

Glenn and his wife had just turned on their television to watch Columbia return home when NASA lost communications with the shuttle.

"Anytime you lose contact like that, there's some big problem," Glenn said in a telephone interview from his Maryland home. "Of course, once you went for several minutes without any contact, you knew something was terribly wrong."

Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth on Feb. 20, 1962. In 1998, at age 77, he became the oldest space traveler when he returned on the shuttle Discovery. Later that year, he retired from the Senate after representing Ohio for 24 years.

Former astronaut Winston Scott, an engineering professor at Florida State University, watched in disbelief from his Tallahassee home as television footage showed the shuttle breaking up.

"Never would I guess that something would go wrong during this phase of flight. But it just goes to show you that this is a volatile business and something could go wrong in any phase in flight," Scott said.

"At that point in flight, there is no orange glow of re-entry ... the flight is relatively smooth now. You're sitting in your seat relatively relaxed in an upright attitude. It's almost like flying in an airplane."

Scott, who logged 24 days in space on two missions on the Columbia and the Endeavour, knew all the Columbia's crew members except Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.

Scott flew with mission specialist Kalpana Chawla on Columbia in December 1997 when he and another astronaut retrieved an out-of-control satellite and brought it aboard. Shuttle pilot Willie McCool was his "basketball buddy" and the two logged many games in the astronaut gym.

"It's a mystery to everybody right now," he said. "We just have no idea of what could have gone wrong."

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