February 17, 2003 12:00 PM

Seven Became One

Sent into the wilderness of Wyoming for a grueling 11-day training mission, the Columbia seven went out as a crew but came back a family

Many months later, they would slip the surly bonds of earth, but on this summer day the seven Columbia crewmembers tried their best not to slip those bonds just yet. Assembled for an 11-day training mission in a remote Wyoming mountain range in August 2001, the astronauts were charged with scaling the craggy granite face of Wind River Peak, a challenging test of their endurance, leadership skills and cohesiveness as a group. What happened on that mountain and in those 11 days turned them into perhaps the closest crew in the history of NASA. “I never got the impression that they would go up in space, do their thing and then not see each other,” says Andrew Cline, 39, one of two instructors who led the expedition. “These guys were a team for life.”

Pulled together from parts farflung—the flats of Texas, a small town in India, war-torn Israel—they spent more time together than most NASA crews due to repeated delays in getting their mission off the ground. They knew each other’s wives and kids, shared babysitters and recipes. They also endured harsh training together: five days in freezing weather at a Canadian space center: a day struggling to stay afloat in a raft adrift in Russian waters. But it was the 11 days they spent in the Wind River Mountains—organized by the National Outdoor Leadership School, which has trained astronauts since 1999—that fostered what crew-member David Brown called “huge bonding,” remembers his girlfriend, NASA senior engineer Ann Micklos. “He said it was kind of like the show Survivor, because there was no TV, no cell phones and no map.”

Indeed, they could have been the cast of their own reality series, except these roomies were likely to squabble over isotopes instead of who ate the last Pop-Tart. They shared cramped tents, went for daily six-mile hikes lugging 65-lb. backpacks and brewed really bad coffee. “We didn’t have a filter; we boiled it in a pot and put the grounds right in the water,” explains John Kanengieter, 41, the other instructor. “We had theories going every morning on how best to make it.” Israeli-born Ilan Ramon “was the coffee connoisseur. His concept was to stir it with a stick only twice.”

In the thin mountain air they executed missions designed to expose their strengths and flaws. Each day, a different pair were designated leaders, supervising hikes and solving problems. Yet there was also time for fun. Rick Husband liked to go fishing (he caught his first trout with a fly rod); Willie McCool swam the frigid lakes and goaded an unwitting Dave Brown to take a plunge into the 40° water too; Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark, both nature lovers, reveled in identifying birds and flowers. Everybody got a kick out of teasing Michael Anderson about his fear of bears. At night they would all lie under the stars and point out passing satellites. “Every time one went by, Rick would say, ‘Tallyho,’ ” says Cline. “They knew what kind each was, based on how fast and what direction. It was just so cool listening to them. These guys were going to space.”

But first they had to climb the 13,192-ft. Wind River Peak, the defining moment of their journey. At the base they discussed whether to go up as a team or to split up and leave someone behind at camp. “They had a great dialogue for an hour or more about what makes a team,” says Kanengieter. ” ‘Is it all or nothing? What does it mean if we don’t go up together?’ They decided that for them, being a team meant they all went up.”

And so they did, setting out at 5:00 a.m. On the way up they passed a cow elk grazing peacefully; they paused to watch the sun rise golden over the mountain. “It was,” says Kanengieter, “a magical morning.” They finally reached the summit just after 11:00 a.m. Exhausted and triumphant, they placed a NASA patch on the peak, posed for a group photo and gaped as Kanengieter pulled out a secret cell phone and dialed NASA headquarters in Houston. Huddling around the phone, the astronauts delivered a message that now seems heartbreakingly poignant. “They all chimed in,” says Kanengieter, “and said, ‘Columbia has landed!’ ”

And then they sat there, on top of one world, destined for another. It was quiet for a long while, until Rick Husband—a baritone in his church choir back in Clear Lake City, Texas—began to sing. The others joined in one by one. The song: “Amazing Grace.”

Forged on a mountain, sealed in space, the closeness they shared is now part of the legacy they left. A team in the truest sense, but more than that, forever friends. “We’ve had a great time together,” Michael Anderson said not long before the launch. “When I look back on this flight years from now, the one thing that I’ll really remember and appreciate is the friendships.” In the end, those were earthly bonds they never wished to slip.

RICK HUSBAND, 45

Mission commander, married, father of two

The memory of Rick Husband brings tears to the eyes of his younger brother Keith. Tears of sorrow, of course, but also tears of joy. “I’d pester him when we were little kids, but we loved each other dearly,” says Keith, who was looking forward to having Rick serve as best man at his wedding in April.

Keith still vividly recalls a day soon after Rick got his pilot’s license at age 17. The brothers hopped in a Cessna and took wing from the small airstrip in Amarillo, Texas, where Rick had learned to fly. “We took off, did some turns and flew over our house,” recalls Keith, 42, himself now a pilot for America West Airlines. “Rick was beaming and I was giggling. It was a great day.”

In the years that followed, that enthusiasm only grew. After graduating from Texas Tech University, Husband joined the Air Force, first establishing himself as a superb fighter jock, then as a test pilot. In 1994 he realized a lifelong dream and was selected as an astronaut candidate. His first mission into space was in 1999, when he served as the pilot of the shuttle Discovery. If his duties ever put a strain on his family, it never showed, especially not in his wife of 20 years, Evelyn, 44, who had attended Amarillo High School with him. “I knew exactly who I was marrying—a pilot who might one day become an astronaut,” Evelyn once told a friend. “And I’m thrilled for him.”

For all Husband’s love of technology and machinery, what really catches in the minds of those who knew him best was how he related to other people. When talking to his own children—Laura, 12, and Matthew, 7—he would kneel down, the better to address them at eye level. At Halloween he would dress up in his space suit and pose endlessly for pictures with kids at Grace Community Church, where he worshipped, in Clear Lake City southeast of Houston.

Keith last saw his brother on Jan. 14, two days before the launch, at a NASA barbecue. “Rick and the crew were really pumped up,” Keith says, “yet they were relaxed at the same time. You’d have never guessed that in two days, these same seven were going to strap on a rocket and go off into space—putting their lives on the line.”

Now for Keith the only consolation is that he can see a reflection of his brother in his kids, who above all seem to have inherited their father’s gentle strength. Right after the tragedy, Keith says, Laura whispered to his fiancée not to worry about them. “God will take care of us,” said the youngster.

WILLIAM McCOOL, 41

Navy commander, pilot, married, father of three

He was one of those kids with a twinkle in his eye; the unusual thing is that he got that twinkle in math class. The San Diego-born McCool was blessed with brains, energy and “the neatest name in the world,” says high school pal Burt Henry. “He never did anything without doing his best,” adds friend Dale Somers—and that included once calculating the half-life of a donut. “You couldn’t craft an all-American guy and come up with anyone better than Willie.”

The son of a Marine and Navy aviator and his wife, McCool was also one of the best long-distance runners in West Texas, where he spent some of his early years. He had collected two master’s degrees, four Navy medals and nearly 3,000 flight hours before getting the call from NASA in 1996. Smitten with Lani, a pretty girl from Guam he met as a youngster, McCool let her slip away but, not one to give up on any mission, tracked her down years later and finally married her.

Now the sons he doted on—Sean, 22, Christopher, 19, and Cameron, 15—”have lost their father in an incredibly public way,” says McCool’s sister Kirstie Chadwick, 37. But everyone knew that going to space brought that old twinkle to his eye. “My brother did what he loved,” says Kirstie. “And he gave his life for it.”

ILAN RAMON, 48

Payload specialist, married, father of four

As the Columbia lifted off on Jan. 16, 5-year-old Noa Ramon suddenly turned to her mother and declared, “I lost my daddy.” Later, when Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon died aboard the shuttle, his widow, Rona, recalled her daughter’s odd remark and told reporters, “She apparently knew.”

In fact Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force, always made it a point to reassure his children—Assaf, 14; Tal, 12; Yiftah, 9; and Noa—that they shouldn’t worry about his flying, because he didn’t. “Flying is a part of my life,” he said in an interview last year. “I’m sorry, but I’m not afraid.” All the same, his exploits as a pilot were the stuff of legend in Israel. In 1981 he was at the controls of one of the eight warplanes that set off on one of the country’s most daring missions. Flying in dangerously tight formation so that they would imitate the radar image of a commercial jetliner, the pilots headed deep into hostile Iraqi territory and destroyed a nuclear reactor at Osirak. Ramon, who had been entrusted with the vital task of plotting the route of the strike, was only 26 at the time, the youngest member of the squadron.

Nonetheless, over the years even this celebrated warrior, whose mother and grandmother were both survivors of the Holocaust, saw his appetite for conflict diminish. He told a friend not long ago that he eventually wanted to try his hand at teaching. “I’ve had enough missions, enough war,” he said. “Now I want to do something peaceful.”

That impulse was touchingly evident during his days aboard the Columbia. Among the things he carried with him were a small Torah that had been brought out of a Nazi concentration camp as well as a pencil drawing of the moon’s landscape with Earth in the background, which had been made by Peter Gintz, a 14-year-old Jewish boy who was killed at Auschwitz. When asked in a televised interview during the shuttle mission what he could see, Ramon replied, “We see the Earth, which is so fragile and beautiful.” That was the sensitive soul his widow, Rona, wanted the world to remember after his death. “He only smiled,” she said, “and he wanted us to continue smiling.”

KALPANA CHAWLA, 41

Mission specialist 2, married

Even as a little girl, Kalpana Chawla had stars in her eyes. During the steamy summers in Karnal, India, the spirited tomboy—she studied karate, cut her own hair and never wore ironed clothes—would sleep in the courtyard, gazing up at the sky. By high school “KC” was talking about traveling to the moon, a dream that could not have seemed more impossible in a tradition-bound culture where 55 percent of women are still illiterate. “I like airplanes,” she once said. “It’s that simple.”

Chawla certainly made it look that way. At 20 she won a scholarship for graduate study in aeronautical engineering in the U.S.—and then persuaded her family to drop their objections. “She said, ‘I can get married anytime, but this will never come again,’ ” recalled her older brother Sanjay. As it turned out, KC met her future husband, flying instructor Jean-Pierre Harrison, 45, her very first day at the University of Texas at Arlington. “They were very much alike,” says former shuttle astronaut Winston Scott of the pair, who were married in 1984 and, in addition to flying, shared interests in scuba diving, hiking and, eventually, the rock group Deep Purple. “They were a very good team.”

No one seemed prouder than Harrison when KC made her maiden shuttle flight in 1997, only three years after being selected for the space program. This time he was again waiting at the Kennedy Space Center, along with most of her family, for the landing that never came. “What KC achieved inspired a whole generation of young women,” brother Sanjay says. “My sister will be remembered as a hero.”

DAVID BROWN, 46

Mission specialist 1, single

David Brown defied expectations—as well as gravity—for most of his life. At the College of William and Mary, the Arlington, Va., native competed as a gymnast, sharpening his skills by working as a circus acrobat. “I remember seeing somebody with a shock of red hair and a big smile zipping around campus on a 5-ft.-high unicycle; that was Dave,” says Sam Sadler, the school’s vice president for student affairs. “If he was interested in something, he’d pursue it.”

His curious mind and questing spirit led Brown to become, in turn, physician, flight surgeon, naval aviator and finally astronaut. “Dave being an astronaut was like a kid in a candy store,” says friend Steve Kennedy, who lived next door to the easygoing bachelor.

Outside of flight, one of the most enduring loves of Brown’s life was his elderly, arthritic golden retriever Duggins. “What I remember most about our first date was that during dinner he said, ‘You may think I’m totally crazy, but I need to call my dog,’ ” says Ann Micklos, 39, a NASA senior engineer who’d been seeing Brown for the past three years. Two days before the Columbia’s launch, Duggins had to be put to sleep. When Brown got the news, says Micklos, “his eyes were completely watering over. He said, ‘Here I am at the pinnacle of my career and he’s passed on.’ ” After the disaster Micklos and her coworkers gathered together. “I told them I had asked David several months ago what if something went wrong. He told me, ‘I want you to find that person that made the mistake, and I want you to tell that person that I hold no animosity,’ ” she says. ” ‘I died doing what I loved.’ ”

MICHAEL ANDERSON, 43

Payload commander, married, father of two

He had traveled the world—and already been into space once. But the journey that Anderson sometimes seemed to enjoy most was joining his daughters Sydney, 11, and Kaycee, 9, for a bicycle ride around their neighborhood in the Houston suburb of Clear Lake City. Either that or accompanying the girls on their Brownie outings. Indeed, it was the basics in life that seemed to mean the most to Anderson. “He was widely accomplished,” says Garrett Booth, executive pastor of Grace Community Church, which Anderson regularly attended with wife Sandra, 46, and their girls, “but always humble.”

Which is not to say he didn’t take a quiet pride in serving as a role model for African-American youths. Anderson, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, reminded audiences that he had overcome stiff odds, that he was often the only black student in physics and astronomy courses at the University of Washington and was one of only seven active black astronauts out of a total of 80 at NASA. He was also undaunted by the risks he ran, says Rev. Freemon Simmons, who married Michael and Sandra. If the shuttle didn’t come back, Simmons says Anderson once told him, “Don’t worry about me. I’m just going higher.”

LAUREL CLARK, 41

Mission specialist 4, married, one child

Laurel Clark packed a lifetime of accomplishment into her 41 years: submarine medical officer, flight surgeon, astronaut and wife. “She was a very confident person,” says friend and medical school classmate Deborah Lessmeier. “She dreamed boldly.” Married since 1991 to fellow NASA flight surgeon Jonathan Clark, 49, whom she met when both were in the Navy, the physician from Racine, Wis., seemed to have no trouble sorting out her priorities. “Motherhood’s been incredible,” she said in a preflight interview, “and I tell my son all the time that my most important job is being his mother.” Even so, it seemed tough for 8-year-old Iain to cope with the separation the shuttle mission entailed. At Cape Canaveral before the launch, the boy—who was writing a column for Scholastic magazine called “My Mommy Is an Astronaut”—plaintively asked his relatives, “Why can’t one of you go, so my mom won’t have to go?”

As they try to comfort Iain, Clark’s family clings to the thought that her final days were filled with wonder. Space is “an incredibly magical place,” she said during an inflight teleconference, citing the beauty of a sunset and seeing a silkworm cocoon hatch. “Life is a magical thing.”

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