EDITOR'S NOTE:This article appears in today's Super Bowl XXXVIII program, on sale at Reliant Stadium and also available by clicking here.
There are seven families that aren't exactly sure how they will feel this morning. In many ways, it will be like numerous other mornings over the past year. But the calendar will tell them different.
Today the spotlight shines on Houston as the city hosts its first Super Bowl in three decades. It also marks the one-year anniversary of the day the spotlight shined on the city for all the wrong reasons.
Columbia STS-107 Crew
Commander Rick Husband
Pilot William McCool
Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla
Mission Specialist David Brown
Mission Specialist Michael Anderson
Mission Specialist Laurel Clark
Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon
On February 1, 2002, seven astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia headed back towards Earth. The 113th shuttle mission was nearly complete. Its crew had conducted more than 80 research experiments in orbit. Four of the crewmembers were on a space flight for the first time. One of those was mission specialist Laurel Clark.
"Although four of us are flying for the first time, and that could be seen as a disadvantage, in some ways it's an incredible advantage because we have a wealth of enthusiasm and excitement that other more-seasoned crews may not have," she said during a preflight interview. "I'm expecting to have a lot of fun. I'm expecting to be tired at the end. But I'm expecting it to be the experience of my lifetime so far."
Husbands and wives were waiting to greet Columbia's astronauts at Cape Canaveral, Fla., that morning, where the shuttle was scheduled to touch down – 15 days, 22 hours and 36 minutes after launch. The mission fell 16 minutes short. Columbia broke up during re-entry over north Texas. The tragedy shook the nation to its core. And no city took it harder than Houston.
It's no secret that Houston loves its football. As Houston Chronicle columnist Mickey Herskowitz recently wrote: "We always knew that religion was important in Texas, really big, because people kept comparing it to football." From Friday night lights to campus Saturdays to NFL Sundays, Texans devour football like no other state in the union.
But for the past four decades, Houston has also been home to the nation's space program, embracing both its people and its passion. NASA's Johnson Space Center boasts nearly 10,000 employees and has trained more than 300 astronauts since the first were selected in 1959. Mission Control is the operational hub of every American human space mission.
And NASA stresses the term "human." For all the technology that permeates the Space Center's walls, it's our collective curiosity that makes the space program tick. The desire to test our physical limits. The desire to better understand our home planet. And, of course, the desire to see if there's anybody, or anything, else out there. That's precisely the type of knowledge with which Columbia's crew was returning home before they lost communication with Mission Control.
But sometimes we forget how dangerous certain professions can be until something goes wrong.
One second, the crowd is on its feet, exhorting the defense to stop the offense on third down. The next second, the crowd falls silent as a player lies motionless on the turf after a bone-jarring collision.
One second, Mission Control is monitoring Columbia as it speeds back towards Earth. The next second, transmission is lost, there are streaks across the Texas sky and family members on the ground are left waiting for loved ones who never arrive.
"As we pause to honor Columbia's seven brave astronauts, the dreams that inspired them to push the boundaries of exploration now live on in each of us," NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe said. "We owe an immeasurable debt to the crew of STS-107 and their valiant families, and NASA can best honor their spirit and dedication with a vibrant space program that continues their journey of discovery for a new generation of explorers."
Human spaceflight persevered. Through the tragedy of Columbia and to this day, astronauts have continued to live in space aboard the International Space Station. This past October, NASA announced an implementation plan to resume shuttle flights. No timetable has been set, but the intent is clear. That's promising news for aspiring astronauts, and this city.
All the world's a stage for that city tonight. Houston is hosting sport's grandest spectacle, beamed to all corners of the globe. So enjoy Super Bowl XXXVIII and all the excitement that surrounds it. After all, that's why Houston wanted it here.
But also take a moment to reflect on the Columbia families and the rest of the extended NASA family. Today will be a difficult day for all of them.