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Missing sonic boom alerts radiation officer to tragedy

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (BP)–The sonic booms on Florida’s Space Coast are as regular as an alarm clock on shuttle landing days. So when the clock struck a few minutes after 9 a.m. Feb. 1, and NASA’s Randall Scott didn’t hear the customary double boom signaling the return of the Space Shuttle Columbia, alarm bells went off in his head.

“I knew something terrible had happened,” said Scott, a radiation protection officer at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral and a member of First Baptist Church of Merritt Island, Fla. “The shuttle doesn’t have the opportunity to go around. It comes in when it comes in. If it doesn’t, there is something wrong.”

Scott, who has been with NASA since 2000, is responsible for the medical care of the astronauts as well as the occupational health of the workforce and protection of the surrounding environment, especially as it relates to radiation concerns.

On the day the shuttle broke apart about 200,000 feet above the ground over north-central Texas, Scott was set to drive a busload of soccer kids from First Baptist’s Christian school to Fort Lauderdale for a match. On standby in case of problems, Scott said he had made arrangements for personnel from his office to be at the landing site to assist in offloading external packages and to monitor the press site.

Monitoring the day’s events on his radio, Scott said he called into the medical support station “as soon as things went awry” to find out what was going on and relay information about the shuttle’s cargo.

“I was on the phone with the folks there, letting them know what the inventories of the hazardous cargoes on board were, so they could report to the first responders dealing with the emergency … in Texas,” recapped Scott, an Oklahoma native.

Personnel from his office, many who had “very close personal contact with the astronauts,” were already on standby in case of “any contingency in close to the space center.”

“It’s certainly hit us all very deeply,” Scott said. “Our hearts were deeply saddened.”

With nothing more to do but pray and comfort, Scott was given a go-ahead to proceed with the school trip while remaining on standby. After gathering for prayer, the teens, separated from television for most of the day, moved their focus to sports talk.

“A high school group is in a fast action environment,” Scott said. “It takes a lot of time for things to sink in. I think as they go on and the days go on and they start to comprehend a little bit more of the impact, we certainly need to interact with them and try to encourage them and answer their questions the best we can.”

The father of two grown sons and an 11th-grader, Scott said the accident is something parents should discuss with their children.

“We all know that it’s tough to deal with the reality that when you’re out on the edge, that you can certainly design and engineer and prepare the best you can, but when things happen they can happen bad-wrong, real quick. And unfortunately, that’s what we experienced,” Scott said.

Having to deal with it requires “trust and focus that God is in control,” Scott said. “Although, we don’t understand and probably won’t until we get with him.”

Scott said NASA employees’ hearts “really were summed up [Feb. 1] when the president said that the astronauts were not able to return to earth, but we trust and pray that they are all now home.”

Looking outward will be important to Scott, even as this tragedy causes many to ask “why.”

“Of course, we have those questions in our minds,” he said. “But we need to reach out to those around us to provide comfort in whatever sphere of influence we have.”
Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.floridabaptistwitness.com. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: AMONG THE REMEMBRANCES.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan