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Remembering the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy 20 years on

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It was Saturday, February 1, 2003, and the space shuttle Columbia was scheduled to return from its 28th mission. But then, disaster and tragedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SIMON: And we are breaking in with sad news this morning. The space shuttle Columbia has been seen apparently breaking up in the skies over Texas as it returned to Earth.

All seven crew members died. And that day, Pat Duggins joined Weekend Edition for hours of coverage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PAT DUGGINS: Right now, a lot of confusion, Scott. When the shuttle begins its descent, there's a very set number of things that have to happen, a number of signposts, as the space shuttle...

SIMON: Twenty years later, Pat Duggins joins us again from the studios of Alabama Public Radio in Tuscaloosa. Pat, my friend, very good to be with you after 20 years.

DUGGINS: We're both a little bit grayer, Scott, but the memories are still very, very, very vivid.

SIMON: Yeah. I feel the need today to also begin by saying these seven names - Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon. They weren't all strangers to you, were they?

DUGGINS: No. One time, I was covering a shuttle mission. It was about a year before Columbia was lost. And there are astronauts that fly, and there are astronauts who back up the flight crew. And David Brown, whom you mentioned, was one of the astronauts in a support fashion. He was a rookie at the time. And I just said, well, you know, pretty soon, you're going to get your own flight, and then, I'll get to ask you some rude questions. How about that? And we both had a chuckle. And he went his way, and I went mine. And a year later, Columbia happened.

SIMON: And what are your memories of that day?

DUGGINS: For me, it was more of what I heard rather than what I saw. There was the very - you know, the video of, like, the spacecraft breaking up. But for me, I was at the Kennedy Space Center, as you know, and at the runway, waiting for Columbia to land. And I was already writing my first post-landing spot for the newscast unit. Everything's fine. Next mission goes as...

SIMON: I mean, we should explain, it was almost routine.

DUGGINS: Absolutely.

SIMON: There was almost no sense of mystery, yeah.

DUGGINS: There we are. Yeah. And everything happened exactly by the numbers, as you say. So what happens is there was some bad radio communication. That was the shuttle deteriorating, but everybody just thought it was an equipment problem. But for me, it was the sonic booms. Because two minutes before touchdown, you hear a double sonic boom - boom, boom - off the shuttle. And there's a big digital clock that I watch while I'm working on my laptop. And two minutes came and two minutes gone and no sonic booms. And it was at that point that I found a NASA manager, who just said, what happened? And I said, lost an orbiter. And then, you called.

SIMON: Twenty years later, what have we learned about that day? What happened there in the sky? And what might have prevented it?

DUGGINS: Well, you know, it's funny. I mean, if you talk to historians, who are much better at this than I am, they'll say, you know, the Titanic, it can't sink. Challenger - routine launch and landing, no problems there. And that hubris always seems to catch up with us. And with Columbia, it was the piece of falling foam that hit the vehicle. And NASA asked the engineers, do you know it's a problem? And they said, well, we can't be sure. And so the manager said, fine, we'll just keep going with the mission and not tell anybody about it. And it wasn't until the very end that they informed the astronauts 'cause they figured it was going to come up in a press conference. And that was what ultimately doomed the crew.

SIMON: Yeah. We also want to play some other audio from that day. And this is then-President George W. Bush addressing the nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W BUSH: The same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth. Yet we can pray that all are safely home.

SIMON: It was a very moving and memorable speech, wasn't it?

DUGGINS: It is a fact that one of the jobs of president of the United States is to be the consoler in chief. And I think President Bush did a very fine job that day. In fact, it harkens back to what President Reagan had to say following the loss of Challenger back in '86.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONALD REAGAN: The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us with the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them nor the last time we saw them - this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.

SIMON: I've been telling myself since you and I were together that morning 20 years ago, we should never look at space travel as routine. It takes genius. It takes dedication. It takes courage. And every now and then, there are one of these terrible, unimaginable accidents that reminds us what a dauntless venture it is.

DUGGINS: Well, back before Apollo 1, the launch pad fire in 1967, Gus Grissom, you know, told everyone, you know, the exploration of space is worth the risk of human life. Now, that's easy to say. But then again, you know, after Columbia, I mean, I had to meet with, you know, the husband of astronaut Laurel Clark, whose young son, who built spaceships in his bedroom and dreamed about going into space like his mother - you know, the father had to answer those tough questions. And 20 years later, the memories for them have just got to be as vivid and just as bad.

SIMON: Pat, our conversation would be incomplete if I didn't tell you that I run into people all the time who remember us and that morning 20 years ago and are very, very grateful for the calm and solid information you gave them and the good companion you were with so many people. Thank you.

DUGGINS: Thank you, Scott. It was a terrible day, but a story that needed to be told.

SIMON: Pat Duggins is now news director of Alabama Public Radio and author of the fine book "Final Countdown: NASA And The End Of The Space Shuttle Program." Pat, thanks so much for being with us.

DUGGINS: Thank you, Scott. Take care.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARK ORTON'S "THE OLD HOUSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Pat Duggins
Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio. If his name or voice is familiar, it could be his twenty five years covering the U.S. space program, including fourteen years on NPR. Pat’s NASA experience began with the explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, and includes 103 missions. Many NPR listeners recall Pat’s commentary during Weekend Edition Saturday on February 1, 2003 when Shuttle Columbia broke apart and burned up during re-entry. His expertise was utilized during three hours of live and unscripted coverage with NPR’s Scott Simon. Pat later wrote two books about NASA, Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program and Trailblazing Mars, both of which have been released as audio books. Pat has also lectured about the future of the space program at Harvard, and writes about international space efforts for "Modern Weekly" magazine in Shanghai, China.