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Columbia

Families of seven awaited a return never to come

Struggling through grief, several families insist the space program must continue.

©Associated Press
February 2, 2003


It was to be a day of glory for seven families the world over.

In Israel, a brother had gathered to toast his brave sibling. In Wisconsin, another rose before sunup to see his sister fulfill a lifelong dream.

And at a majestic waterfront launch site in Florida, families of divergent backgrounds and cultures had come together to celebrate an event that bridged the differences: welcoming their loved ones home from space.

In one gut-wrenching moment, their common pride became shared grief as they struggled to understand the incomprehensible.

"I have no son," 79-year-old Eliezer Wolferman, the father of Columbia astronaut Ilan Ramon, told reporters in Jerusalem.

Just hours earlier, Wolferman beamed as he gave a live television interview shortly before the shuttle was due to land. He reminisced about the last time he spoke to his son, by video conference from Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"Our family saw him, and the children asked their dad to do somersaults in the air," he said.

Wolferman's son, Israel's first astronaut, was an icon not just to a family but to an entire nation. His father was proud, and it showed.

Then, a news flash. And the interviewer cut him off.

As word spread around the world that Columbia had disintegrated over Texas, Wolferman was back in front of Israeli TV cameras, struggling with a tragedy he couldn't fathom.

"I think of everything from the day he was born until now," he said. "I have no son. It is very sad, and I don't know what else to say."

Ramon's brother, Gadi, had invited friends to the restaurant he owns to toast the landing. "Even in our wildest imaginations it didn't occur to us that something could happen," said Gadi, who had been afraid of flying. His brother always assured him driving was far more dangerous.

The astronaut's wife and four children were among the crew families that had gathered at Cape Canaveral for the landing.

After NASA lost contact with the shuttle Saturday, relatives were ushered to crew quarters where NASA officials delivered the somber news and President Bush called to offer condolences.

The families were being kept in seclusion and were expected later to fly to Houston, the astronauts' home base during training.

Elsewhere across the nation, relatives struggled with shock and misery even as they sought to celebrate the astronauts' lives and the passion that drove them in spite of the dangers.

In the Alpharetta, Ga., townhouse of astronaut Kalpana Chawla's brother, the news came in a phone call a little after 9 a.m. Girish Chawla, his wife, Harvinder Gill, and their 1-year-old son, Kabeer, were still sleeping.

The call was from Chawla's relatives in New Delhi. The news was not good.

The shuttle Columbia had not landed as scheduled.

"I said, 'Oh, no. I can't believe it,"' Gill said, trying to keep her composure. "I came hurriedly down the stairs and turned the TV on. There it was -- on the TV.

"I still don't believe it," she said.

"I am shocked, stunned," Girish Chawla said. "She was a very determined person. She was totally dedicated to her profession."

He flew from Atlanta to Houston on Saturday afternoon to join other family members.

"It had been an absolutely flawless flight," astronaut Laurel Clark's brother, Daniel Salton, said by phone from Milwaukee. He had risen at 5 a.m. to monitor Columbia's return. "To have this happen with 15 minutes to go until it was over was just unbelievable."

A day earlier, he had received an e-mail from his sister about how much she was enjoying her first flight aboard the space shuttle.

"I'm just so glad she got to get up to space and got to see it because that had been a dream for a long time," Salton said. "She saw the path to be an astronaut was open -- she went at it full throttle all the way."

Others voiced their support for the continuation of the space program.

"We want the space mission to go on," Audrey McCool, mother of pilot William C. McCool, said outside her Las Vegas home. Saying she was "obviously very distressed," she was preparing to join McCool's father in Houston today.

"We don't want those people to have died in vain."

U.S. Capt. David Brown, a mission specialist on Columbia, died living his dreams, said Molly Hobson, a family friend who read a statement from the astronaut's family in his parents' hometown of Washington, Va.

"Judge Brown and his dear wife, Dot, hope that all of us can take a lesson from Dave and follow our dreams with a passion," Hobson said.

In addition to his parents, Hobson said, "Dave leaves behind one brother, Doug, who posed this question (to his brother recently). 'What if you should die in space?' And Dave answered, 'We've got to go on. The program must continue."'

-- Information from Cox News Service was used in this report.

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