As in previous national disasters, religion came to the fore as millions of Americans mourned the loss of the seven astronauts aboard space shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1. President Bush himself sounded the keynote in his four-minute speech following the tragedy (see box). And although he didn't sermonize at last week's nationally televised memorial service at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, God's greatness and grace came through in his vignettes of two of the astronauts, Rick Husband and Michael Anderson.
Hundreds of parents and children were gathering that Saturday morning for an area-wide Bible competition at Nassau Bay Baptist Church when news arrived that Columbia had gone silent. The large church is located across the street from the Houston space center; many NASA personnel and their families attend. NASA employee Mike Red, a church youth worker, led the participants in prayer.
That evening, churches and synagogues in Houston and around the Kennedy Space Center in Florida opened their doors to thousands who came to pray and meditate. Sunday saw the astronauts and their families remembered in prayers and sermons in houses of worship all across the country. Soon hundreds were gathering at the gates to the space center. Many were weeping. They built impromptu memorials with flowers and scribbled tributes. Some held hands and prayed.
Throughout India, mourning Hindus lit candles next to photos of Kalpana Chawla, 41. She is still a national hero even though she left in the 1980s to become an American citizen and an astronaut (in 1994). She was a member of a Hindu temple in suburban Houston.
Israeli pilot llon Ramon, 48, also was mourned as a national hero in his homeland (he was one of the eight Israeli pilots who bombed a nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981) and remembered in synagogues across America. He took with him on Columbia a Torah scroll from a Tel Aviv professor and a copy of the Jewish Bible on a microchip Israel's president gave him. Halfway through the 16-day mission, his wife e-mailed him a Hebrew song that proved to be prophetic. It included the words: "My last day is probably very close; near is the day of good-bye tears."
Both mission commander Rick Husband, 45, an Air Force colonel, and payload commander Michael Anderson, 43, were known among their colleagues and friends as "committed Christians." They and their families were members of 5,000-member Grace Community Church.
Col. Husband was the outspoken one. He was a leader in the men's ministry, helped with children's church, and team-taught a Sunday school class. He also was a baritone in the church choir. On the choir's latest CD, Rise Up, he sang a solo: "Before the throne of God above."
But above all, he considered his family his first priority in ministry. Before leaving on the mission, he recorded 34 devotional videos, 17 for each of his two children-a "devotion with dad" video for each day he would be gone.
On launch day in January on the Florida coast, the astronauts suited up and walked down a corridor to meet the press and then climb aboard Columbia. Col. Husband asked his crew mates to pause at the corridor door while he prayed aloud for them and the mission. "I never saw a commander do that before," a suit technician recalled.
Each astronaut was allowed to select a wake-up song piped from Houston during the flight. Col. Husband chose "God of Wonders."
On the Sunday morning following the tragedy, the 130 choir members at Grace Community gathered in the music room to ready themselves for the morning services. Tears stained the cheeks of many. Someone had placed a photo of their fellow chorister, Col. Husband, on the piano.
Grace Community's pastor, Steve Riggle, was in Guatemala when he heard the news about Columbia. He hurried back that day to minister to the Husband and Anderson families, and to preside at the Sunday services. During the services, he played videotapes of interviews he had with the two men earlier. In one, Lt. Col. Anderson spoke of wanting to spread the gospel message to others. In the other, Col. Husband said being an astronaut was not as important as "trying to live my life the way God intended me to-to be a good husband, a good father."
President Bush at last week's memorial service said that Lt. Col. Anderson had told his pastor: "If this thing doesn't turn out right, don't worry about me. I'm going up higher."