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NASA marks 10th anniversary of Columbia disaster

Space agency marks the anniversaries of the Columbia, Challenger, and Apollo 1 disasters with an emotional memorial service, vowing to do everything possible to prevent a recurrence.

Evelyn Husband-Thompson, widow of Columbia Commander Rick Husband, remembers the fallen crew and the devastating impact of the 2003 disaster in a ceremony Friday at the Space Mirror Memorial honoring fallen astronauts.
William Harwood/CBS News

In an emotional memorial service, the widow of the shuttle Columbia's commander recalled their last meeting the day before launch and the devastation the families felt when they learned their loved ones had perished during re-entry 10 years ago Friday.

Speaking in front of the Space Mirror Memorial to fallen astronauts at the Kennedy Space Center's visitor complex, Evelyn Husband-Thompson shared memories of Columbia commander Rick Husband and his six crewmates, saying how proud the families were of the crew's accomplishments during their 16-day science mission.

The night before landing, the families "shared a meal together at a local restaurant," she said. "I went to bed with the NASA (television) channel left on quietly in the background and I fell asleep, thanking God for the great mission, and I was so excited for the reunion with my husband."

Instead, the families listened in disbelief at the shuttle's 3-mile-long runway the next morning as it became clear Columbia had suffered a catastrophic failure during re-entry.

"February 1, 2003, became a traumatic, shocking day," Husband-Thompson said. "Anticipating a joyful homecoming of our crew, we were jolted in the viewing area into a nightmarish stroll of fear, uncertainty, and horror that led to a crushing announcement that the crew had perished during re-entry.

"Words of sorrow, efforts to comfort, even fathoming the magnitude of loss was overwhelming that day. Looks of disbelief from one family member to another brought little comfort. The shock was so intense that even tears were not freely able to fall. They would come in the weeks, months, and years to follow, in waves and in buckets."

And in the months and years that followed, she said, "the human spirit, created by God, began to minister to my family."

"Friends and family cared for us, and countless thousands of others prayed for us. To all of you, I want to say thank you.... God bless the families of STS-107. May our broken hearts continue to heal and may beauty continue to replace the ashes. God bless you."

In an interview before the ceremony, Husband-Thompson said she remains a strong supporter of NASA and the manned space program.

"NASA's an amazing group of folks and they have been hugely supportive of us," she said. "It was Rick's dream since he was 4 years old, and obviously what happened was devastating. But it doesn't stop the cause of space exploration. I totally support it. It's contributed so much to our world."

Several hundred space managers, engineers, and acquaintances gathered to mark the 10th anniversary of the Columbia disaster, the 27th anniversary of Challenger's loss on Jan. 28, 1986, and the 46th anniversary of a launch pad fire on Jan. 27, 1967, that killed three Apollo astronauts.

Husband-Thompson chats with friends before a memorial service marking the 10th anniversary of the Columbia disaster. William Harwood/CBS News

Their names are carved in the Space Mirror Memorial, along with others who lost their lives in the pursuit of spaceflight.

Columbia was destroyed during re-entry when hot gas penetrated the shuttle's left wing through a hole in a leading edge heat shield panel. The hole was caused by the impact of foam insulation that fell from the ship's external tank during launch 16 days earlier.

As a postaccident investigation would show, NASA had a long history of problems with "foam shedding," but continued to launch shuttles without a thorough understanding of the implications.

"In looking back, there was no malicious intent by any engineer or manager in the decisions they made that led to the loss of Columbia and her crew," said Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana, a veteran shuttle commander. "They were doing their very best to be successful. But we are human and oftentimes, when lacking sufficient data, we make poor decisions. And that results in events like Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia."

Cabana said NASA had learned from its mistakes "and we are going on to even greater accomplishments."

"But we must never forget the hard lessons that we learned in the past," he told the crowd. "It's important that we pause to remember and reflect. We must do our very best to prevent something like that from ever happening again. Too much is at stake."

William Gerstenmaier, director of manned space operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington, echoed Cabana's sentiments, saying the Columbia accident "wasn't caused by a single event or a single person, but by a series of technical and cultural missteps stemming all the way back to the first shuttle launch in 1981 when ice and foam first struck the (orbiter)."

"This was a first indication we had a design problem," he said. "But we continued to fly without fully investigating the consequences of foam hitting the orbiter. We continued to lose foam on many missions and this reinforced the idea that all was well. We did not stay hungry, and we didn't deeply analyze the implications of foam being released at precisely the wrong moment."

He cautioned engineers to stay vigilant, to "recognize even the smallest potential flaw can become a big problem."

"In honor of the Columbia crew, it is our job to be aware of the technical subtleties and be creative about understanding them and the underlying problems," he said. "Even small problems can surface as major failures."

At the conclusion of the memorial ceremony, three NASA T-38 jets roared overhead in a "missing man" formation. Gospel singer BeBe Winans performed his song "Ultimate Sacrifice," and Husband-Thompson, assisted by Gerstenmaier, Cabana, and Eileen Collins, commander of the first post-Columbia shuttle mission, placed a wreath at the base of the Space Mirror.