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Challenger launch director remembers tears he thought ‘would never stop’

ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)–James A. “Gene” Thomas, retired deputy director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., joined countless worshipers across the nation Sunday in praying for the Columbia astronauts who lost their lives over north-central Texas the previous day.

But for Thomas, a member of East Orlando Baptist Church, the events were a vivid reminder of another date — Jan. 28, 1986 — the day the Challenger space shuttle exploded on lift-off. As launch director for the flight, he was the last person to speak to the crew.

“I cried so much after Challenger, I thought I would never stop,” Thomas told the Florida Baptist Witness.

Born in Mississippi and a graduate of Mississippi State University and Florida State University, Thomas joined NASA in 1962. After the Challenger tragedy, he was named director of safety, reliability and quality assurance at Kennedy Space Center before his appointment as deputy director.

Although he did not know the Columbia astronauts personally, he remembered how losing the Challenger crew felt like losing family members. Thomas said NASA shuttle workers are a close-knit unit. The pilots may train for four years preparing to fly the shuttle and civilians train for two years, learning to work in a weightless environment.

Of the Feb. 1 Columbia catastrophe, Thomas said, “It is a dark day. We lost seven great people.”

Working in the space program for 37 years, Thomas knows the risk of launching into outer space. On the day of a launch, the director must check the weather and consult with about 400 engineers and then make a decision whether the flight is a “go” or is scrubbed. He said the launch director is always the last person to talk to the men and women strapped in their seats aboard the shuttle.

“It’s a risky business,” Thomas said. “There will always be accidents.” He said he believes future space flights may be delayed for at least a year before NASA has a clear picture of what happened and how to correct the problem.

Thomas said he did not realize anything was wrong with the Columbia flight since he usually waited for the sonic boom before he went outside of his home to see the shuttle pass by en route to its landing. But when he realized the shuttle was late, he knew it was a bad day for NASA.

Despite the risks, Thomas said space flight is important, especially the scientific experiments done on the shuttles. He was particularly interested in the Alzheimer’s experiment Columbia carried, since his mother-in-law suffers from the disease.

The 68-year-old Thomas and his wife, Juanita, live on Merritt Island. They have two daughters and their son, Chuck, is pastor of East Orlando Baptist Church.

As a “NASA brat,” Chuck Thomas told the Witness, he had seen plenty of launches and landings but the tragedies always are especially remembered.

“We are brokenhearted,” he said of the Columbia explosion.

The Sunday after the tragedy was a bittersweet time of worship. Chuck Thomas presented his father, a deacon of 35 years, as a new deacon to the East Orlando congregation, and then his father read eulogies for the Columbia crew members.

The tragedies of Challenger and, now, Columbia, teach the importance of relying on God no matter what happens, Gene Thomas said. Paraphrasing Romans 8:38-39, he said there is hope for tomorrow for those who trust Jesus.

“In spite of all this — all this stuff is earthly,” he said. “In the light of glory, nothing can separate us from God.”
Backer is the assistant editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.floridabaptistwitness.com . (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: JAMES A. THOMAS and FROM THE HEART.

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  • Janice Backer