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Shuttle Disaster

A goodbye to their bird

More than 5,000 of those who helped design and build Columbia gather to mourn its crew.

By TOM ZUCCO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 8, 2003


CAPE CANAVERAL -- Jim Griggs turned up the collar on his jacket against a cold drizzle and watched the NASA T-38 jet break formation and soar through a hole that suddenly materialized in the clouds. Just as quickly, the hole closed and the jet soared out of sight.

"We needed this," he said Friday morning, his voice cracking. He'd worked here long enough to remember the memorial service 17 years ago after the Challenger explosion, and a similar eerie moment. A helicopter had dropped a wreath in the ocean where the shuttle hit. Just then, a group of dolphins -- seven, it was said -- surfaced by the wreath.

"This made me think back to that. It was like they were going to heaven, and then the hole closed, and it was like saying goodbye," Griggs said.

"This is the first time since last Saturday that I felt I could cry."

Early Friday on the runway where the space shuttle Columbia was scheduled to land a week ago, at the precise moment its wheels were supposed to touch down, more than 5,000 of the 15,000 men and women who work at the Kennedy Space Center gathered on the cold concrete for the end of an hourlong memorial service. They held hands, dabbed their eyes and leaned on each other.

There have been other memorial services, in Houston and Washington. There will be more. But this one was specifically for the people of Kennedy.

Columbia was their bird. They designed and built it. Spent most of their waking hours with her. Nursed it and coddled it. And each time Columbia was launched, they were like anxious parents who had just handed the keys to the family car over to their teenaged children. Only more so.

"It's not an inanimate object to us," said Griggs, 50, an engineering project leader who came to Kennedy in 1982. "When you're so focused every day on the nuts and bolts, on tiny specific pieces of hardware, the shuttle becomes very personal. This may be hard to understand, but you become very emotionally involved.

"That's partly why, when Columbia broke up, so many of us felt so guilty. We didn't die. We didn't suffer enough."

Three hours earlier, in the gloomy predawn hours, a steady ribbon of cars began pouring into the center for the service, which began at 8:15. Vans, dusty pickups and SUVs. Family cars. Cars of working people.

These were the engineers, contractors, electricians and other support people who bring the Space Center to life. And who are satisfied to stay behind and watch as others head off on adventures.

Many of those on the landing strip were bused to the site. Others, in groups of three or four, simply left their buildings and made the quarter-mile trip on foot. Most of their journey was in silence.

They stood at the eastern end of the landing strip and listened as clergy and former astronauts eulogized Columbia's crew and tried to give the workers answers. Help them understand. Even try to make them smile.

"She was a little overweight, a big bird in the rear end," said retired Capt. Robert Crippen, Columbia's first pilot. "Many of us can relate to that. But she was strong and proud. As you should be."

For the ones left behind, it's not always easy to feel that way.

They know that if everything had worked, if there had been no disaster, if the large digital clock facing the launch pad hadn't counted down to zero at 9:15 last Saturday and then started to count the minutes Columbia was overdue, the shuttle would have passed over Florida's west coast, somewhere between Sarasota and Yankeetown.

Columbia's twin sonic booms would have heralded the shuttle's arrival. It would have sounded like short, quick thunder.

The shuttle would have flown over the Indian River before its final approach, and landed on the 15,000-foot runway at about 220 mph, a drag chute billowing behind. About 45 minutes later, after Columbia had sufficiently cooled, the crew would have emerged. They would have been debriefed and reunited with their families.

Instead, a different family now waited at the landing facility.

"Men and women of the Space Center," Gov. Jeb Bush told the crowd, "let us grieve together. And also share hope."

Since last Saturday, more than 30 grief counselors have been brought in to offer support. To help the people who work here understand that they shouldn't blame themselves. That it wasn't their fault.

"But that thought keeps creeping into you," said Renee Peters, a Lockheed technician who has worked at Kennedy since 1991. "Most of us feel at least a little bit responsible for what happened. Over and over, you keep asking yourself, 'Could I have done anything?' "

After the jets flew overhead and the speakers left the stage, the entire crowd remained, as if not wanting the moment to end.

"You curse it, you cuss at it . . . but you love it," Griggs said of Columbia. "One of the last things we say to the astronauts before each launch is, 'Bring her back to us.' "

Griggs is a church-going man with a wife and a family. Like most other people who work here, he is meticulous. He got his engineering degree from the University of Florida. Engineering is what he knows, what he loves.

But as NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe reminded the audience, "The people of NASA are being tested once again."

Something Griggs knows all too well.

"At first, I was extremely angry at God," he said. "I say a prayer every time we have a launch. And then this. . . .

"But it's weird. As the days went by, I felt removed from it, like I was getting less and emotional. Challenger just left a lot of scars, I guess. I'd hate to go through this again. But I said that last time, and here we are."

A chilly wind picked up from the west, and the raindrops grew bigger. Still, many in the crowd remained on the runway. Just standing there.

"When the service first started, I wondered if I'd leave if it really started pouring," Griggs said. "And I thought no. I won't. I'll stay here. And I thought about the seven people on Columbia and what they went through. So a little rain is nothing.

"We'll keep going," he added. "But when you do what we do, something inside of you dies when something like this happens. It just does."

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