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Shuttle disaster personal loss for Seabrook church members

2/4/2003 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

NOTE: For further coverage, see UMNS story #056.

By Eleanor Colvin*

SEABROOK, Texas (UMNS) - All the signs along NASA Road 1 show that the small cities of Seabrook, El Lago and Clear Lake - which the vast majority of NASA employees call home - have once again been emotionally rocked by a space shuttle disaster. And once again, they are standing together in love.
The marquees outside all entities, from elementary schools to eateries, hotels to flower shops, offer inspirational messages to those who lost family members in the Columbia space shuttle explosion Feb. 1 and to the entire Johnson Space Center family.
The streets are lined with messages that read: "Our hearts are with you." "Our prayers go out to you." "Stay strong NASA, we love you."
To express that love, Seabrook United Methodist Church hosted a Feb. 3 memorial service in honor of the seven fallen astronauts. Although none of the Columbia crew attended Seabrook, the 1,000-member church is teeming with scientists, astronauts and NASA employees, who cherish their memories of time spent with the Columbia crew.
"The whole history of this church is tied up with the space program and NASA," said the Rev. Ed Barlow, who has been pastor of Seabrook church for three months. "So, the people here are not experiencing an objective, 'I'm sorry it happened' kind of loss. This is a very personal loss for a lot of us."
The tragedy is extremely personal for Gil Bonse, who works for NASA's astronaut safety branch and knew all of the astronauts aboard Columbia. Having previously worked directly with Columbia's commander, Rick Husband, for about a year, Bonse said he felt numb and shocked when church members broke the tragic news of the shuttle's disintegration during choir rehearsal that Saturday morning. The numbness seems to have subsided, as the soft-spoken Bonse expresses both joy and sadness when describing his final moments with his colleagues.
"I was fortunate to watch the launch and see them before they went into quarantine and wish them well," he said of his time with the astronauts before the Jan. 16 lift off at Kennedy Space Center in Coco Beach, Fla. "They were ecstatic - delighted to go fly - and the launch was flawless. Beautiful."
Those are the memories that Bonse, a 23-year veteran of the space industry, will cherish and hold onto, as opposed to fixating on the loss. He also finds comfort in a promise he once heard: Christians never see each other for the last time.
"Rick was a committed Christian, and that was apparent in his day-to-day activities," Bonse said of his former boss, who also shared his love of singing in the choir.
Faith is what Bonse, a member of Seabrook for nearly 15 years, said gives him the strength to move forward. Psalm 121, which was read at the memorial service, and Psalm 127 are two scriptures that are especially comforting to him now, he said. Another comfort was the compassion NASA leaders expressed Feb. 3, he said, when officials made it clear the astronauts were loved, would be missed and that healing the chasm created by their loss would be a priority. Those declarations made an unusually somber workday easier.
Barlow hoped the memorial service would be another source of comfort and assurance for Bonse and others who are grief stricken. The main objective was to keep people's eyes focused on God instead of the grief and to provide a map to help people move from despair to hope.
"The main points of the eulogy are there is nowhere where God is not; we are all held in the lap of God; and God absorbs us into his loving presence," Barlow said.
"There will be a lot of services to discuss their duty and honor and courage and the challenge to live up to their standard. It's important as Christians to approach this memorial service in the context of God's presence even in the midst of tragedy. Tragedy is a part of the human condition. God's a God of tragedy as well as success - a God of loss as well as joys."
The lingering pain of a shuttle disaster is not new to most Seabrook members and the NASA community. Living through the Challenger explosion 17 years ago makes accepting the Columbia tragedy easier and more difficult at the same time. While the pain is familiar, it's still pain - and most people can't believe that it actually happened again.
Coping with the disaster is especially hard for young people like Joe Potts, 14, and Jeff Nickeson, 17, who either weren't born in 1986 or weren't old enough to remember the Challenger tragedy.
"I wasn't quite a year old when Challenger happened," Nickeson said. "But my mom kept all the papers.
"Space has always been a part of my life. As a 5 year old, I could spout out what NASA stands for. I probably knew more about NASA than an adult from another state."
Although none of Nickeson's family works for NASA, he still feels closely bound to the industry. His family, particularly his mother, knew several of the astronauts aboard Columbia and Challenger.
"Everyone in the neighborhood is affected. The original astronauts of Mercury 7 lived in Timber Cove - my neighborhood. These neighborhoods were built for the astronauts," said Nickeson. Emphasizing the sense of community, he added that one of his astronaut neighbors recently wrote a letter of recommendation for his applications to West Point Military Academy and Texas A&M University.
Nickeson and Potts, both members of Seabrook and students at Clear Lake High School, said the first day of school after the explosion was no average day. They described it as different and quiet, despite the fact that police were swarming the campus to ensure that the son of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon and other astronauts' children who attend the school were not bothered by media or other curious onlookers.
"(Ramon's son) didn't seem happy or sad. You could tell in his eyes he was very upset," Potts said. "Normally, he has a smile. But he was very quiet, while people were talking and crying all around him.
"This is a very new thing for us that we don't know how to handle. We could be sad. We could ignore it. Even though we don't know what to do, we recognize it's a very bad thing."
Both boys consider it a privilege to come of age in a community rooted in the tradition of space exploration. The courageous spirit of the astronauts leaves them in awe and inspired.
"They knew the risks but still took the challenge. That's a very honorable thing to do." said Potts, who aspires to attend Texas A&M University and serve as an officer in the Army or Marines.
A future political analyst, Nickeson echoed Potts' reverence for the astronauts' selfless service.
"Space travel just can't be described - it's one of those wow moments," Nickeson said. "These astronauts are not just working to push America forward, but they are working for the entire world. They don't care about race, they don't care about terrorism. They are just doing their jobs - forwarding mankind, serving on the frontlines."
The youth are not the only ones inspired by the heroism of the Columbia astronauts. Mary Hoepfner, a 15-year member of Seabrook, said she attended the memorial service to simply show her respect for the fallen. Hoepfner, who worked at NASA as a teen, said although she didn't know any of the Columbia crew, she still feels the pain along with the entire community.
"We're all one family. We're all neighbors," Hoepfner said. "One of my friends is a NASA nurse, and she lost three of her friends on Columbia. We are all affected."
Seabrook Church has always reserved a special place in its heart for space pioneers. The church houses a Space Memorial Room, which is listed on a national registry of museums, and preserves artifacts and pictures commemorating 50 years of space travel. Many of the items are the property of NASA.
But Seabrook's connection to the space industry is deeper than that. The museum is located in the church's Ed White Memorial Youth Center. A member of Seabrook, White was the first U.S. astronaut to walk in space during the Gemini 4 mission. He died in 1967 with two other astronauts in a fire during a ground test aboard Apollo 1.
Kandy Lawson, treasurer of the youth center and Seabrook drama director, said White spurred the birth of the center when he donated his $500 prize from the Freedom Walk Award, honoring his walk in space, to the church youth.
That's the way things have always been at Seabrook and the way members expect they will always be: Seabrook's fate is inherently intertwined with NASA.
This also is a reason the church posts prayers and poems that astronauts have taken into space with them. A prayer in the entryway expresses an astronaut's excitement, and it helps some members accept the tragic fate that often befalls these visionaries.
"Father, thank you, especially for letting me fly this flight. Thank you for the privilege of being able to be in this position; to be up in this wondrous place, seeing all the many startling, wonderful things that you have created," the prayer reads. "Be with all our families. Give them guidance and encouragement and let them know that everything will be OK."
It may take months or years or a lifetime for members of Seabrook to feel OK, but they are certain that as NASA heals, they will heal, and as NASA moves forward, they will move forward.

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*Colvin is a free-lance writer in Houston.

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