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After shuttle debris rains on Dallas, tears fall in Houston space community

DALLAS (BP)–The sound of a sonic boom, the sight of fragmented smoke trails and scattered pieces of falling debris awakened many Texans Feb. 1 as NASA space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Residents of Houston, meanwhile, were drawn together several hundred miles to the south as friends and coworkers in the space industry learned of the tragedy.

Bonnie Pritchett heard the news while en route to a Bible drill competition at Nassau Bay Baptist Church in Houston. “Mission control is right across the street from our church and I heard on the radio that something had gone wrong with the shuttle. I knew right away that it wasn’t good,” Pritchett said. “You don’t lose contact.”

Pritchett’s husband, Steve, works for a company that contracts with NASA. Like many other families in their church, their lives are intertwined with the space industry. “It’s kind of like firefighters and police officers. When someone goes down, you may not know that person, but there’s a loss you feel.”

Her 7-year old son, Sam, told his mother that they need to pray. “He said, ‘Mom, that’s always the first thing you can do is to pray.'”

As several hundred parents and children gathered at the church for the area-wide Bible drill competition, they were informed that contact had been lost with the shuttle. “The kids who live around here are familiar with the industry,” Pritchett said, recounting that a NASA employee, Mike Red, who works in the AWANA youth program, led them in prayer.

“We didn’t want to give them more information than they could handle and alarm them,” she said, “but we began with prayer.”

Three-time shuttle astronaut David Leestma spoke with Nassau Bay Baptist Church pastor David B. Fannin on Saturday morning about the loss of the seven-member crew and noted his friendship with two of them whom he felt confident were Christians, shuttle commander Col. Rick Husband and payload spec Lt. Col. Mike Anderson. Both are members of Grace Community Church in Houston.

“He has shared with me before that there are a number of Christians among the astronaut corps,” Fannin told Baptist Press of Leestma, who works at the Johnson Space Center and had reflected with with his pastor on the danger he accepted every time he flew on a space shuttle, in 1992, 1989 and 1984. “He feels it was what God wanted him to do,” Fannin said, describing the way Leetsma dealt with the anxiety that astronauts and their families face.

“David said he was very good friends with … Rick Husband and Mike Anderson and knew them to be Christians,” Fannin said.

“The NASA community is very much a family,” the pastor said, “and any loss like this is akin to the loss of a family member. It impacts everybody.” Fannin will begin Sunday services with a time of remembrance of those who lost their lives in the tragedy. Another nearby church, University Baptist of Houston, also has many members connected to the space industry, Fannin said.

Southern Baptist Louis Moore of Garland, Texas, immediately flashed back 17 years almost to the day when the Challenger disaster occurred. Moore and his wife, Kay, were both working for the Houston Chronicle when the shuttle exploded in 1986. “Everything just came to a screeching halt,” he recalled.

In those early days of Internet communication, the publication delivered breaking news flashes across the top of the computer screens as reporters worked. “I remember seeing the words ‘shuttle exploded,'” Moore said. “There was such devastation in the newsroom as people responded out of shock. That was how the entire Houston community responded as we faced a devastating blow to the space industry.”

Moore added, “I think we learned that we were not invulnerable. Things can happen. Technology is only as good as technology can be. People who were not people of faith normally began asking a lot more questions.” He recalled interviewing those involved in the tragedy as to why God allows bad things to happen.

“He can use a tragedy to redirect our lives to focus on him,” Moore said. “By opening their doors and being aware of the wider community, this is a great opportunity for churches to minister,” he said. “People are really hurting and they’re the ones to whom we need to minister.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: KEEPING WATCH.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter