Commander Rick Husband’s wife donated his collection to their alma mater.
Some photos courtesy Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library-Rick Husband Collection and McCool family.
On a bright Saturday morning 13 years ago today, the space shuttle Columbia was on its way back to Earth from a 16-day mission. Due to land in Florida, the shuttle instead disintegrated over Texas a mere 16 minutes before its scheduled landing, killing the entire crew.
In the same instant the world lost seven of its best and brightest people, the Texas Tech University community lost two of its own: pilot Willie McCool, the son of university faculty members, and commander Rick Husband, a Texas Tech alumnus. And 1,300 miles away, a fellow Red Raider realized how close he'd come to joining his friends.
As the oldest son of military parents, Willie McCool was raised all over the world. Born in San Diego, he'd lived in Minnesota and Guam as a child, becoming the island territory's first Eagle Scout. After his mother, Army Medical Specialist Corps Col. Audrey McCool, was hired to teach nutritional sciences at Texas Tech, Willie arrived in Lubbock and settled in as a junior at Coronado High School.
“He was a normal, everyday kid, interested in doing a lot of things,” said Audrey, who was earning her doctorate in education while teaching. “He had a younger brother and sister, so he was in charge of the kids and keeping them organized. He was in scouts, on swim team, he was active in school. At Coronado, he was in the science club and running track, which he started in high school. He was on the Coronado cross country team and had some records there.
“If you go to Coronado, you can still see his name as one of the top 10 in a couple of things on the plaque, and that was from a long time ago. He was just a normal kid but interested in doing a lot of activities. He did a lot of different things. For any kid, that broadens his perspective.”
Outside school, Willie sang in the youth choir at the First Methodist Church, which allowed him to see even more of the world.
“The choir at the time went to Russia, so he was part of the group that went,” Audrey said. “I think that was also an enlightening experience because you have to remember, that was back in the 1970s, and so going to Russia was a really big deal at that point.”
Willie's father, Lt. Commander Barry McCool, was a naval flight officer stationed in California at the time, so he flew back and forth when he wasn't deployed.
As the end of high school approached, Willie applied to the United States Naval Academy. After a friend was accepted to the Air Force Academy, he talked Willie into applying there as well. He was accepted at both, but ultimately chose the Naval Academy because Al Cantello, a retired Olympic javelin thrower, was the coach for the Naval Academy's cross country team – something Willie knew he wanted to be a part of.
“I was out on a carrier flying when he applied,” said Barry, who is now a professor in Restaurant, Hotel and Institutional Management at Texas Tech. “I didn't even know he applied to the academy until they notified me out there on the ship that he'd been accepted. I felt shock and pride: Shock because I had no idea he wanted to follow in my footsteps as a naval aviator and pride that he was going to the Naval Academy because that's a real big deal. Only about the top half percent of all high school graduates get accepted into any of the academies, so to be accepted at any of the academies is a great honor.
“All these activities and everything he did led to him getting accepted at the Naval Academy because he was such a well-rounded individual. And that's what the military academies are looking for: not just scholars, not just athletes, but a well-rounded background.”
Rick Husband was born and raised in Amarillo and arrived at Texas Tech in 1975 to study engineering. He had known since childhood he wanted to be an astronaut and was set on making it happen.
In January of his sophomore year, Rick went to a Texas Tech basketball game at Municipal Coliseum. There in the row in front of him sat a girl he knew by sight but couldn't put a name to the face.
“He recognized me from home because we both grew up in Amarillo and both went to Amarillo High School. He knew me, but it was a big enough school that he couldn't quite remember my name,” said Rick's widow, Evelyn Husband Thompson – freshman Evelyn Neely at the time. “Afterward, apparently, he called the Texas Tech operator and they had a number for Evelyn Neely, so he called me. We visited for a little bit and he asked me out on a date. That was Jan. 24, 1977.”
The couple's first date was four days later.
“We went to a restaurant in Lubbock called Smuggler's Inn and had a delightful time just getting to know each other,” Evelyn said. “At dinner, he shared with me his life's story and it involved a quest of wanting to be an astronaut from the time he was 4 years old. He was extremely interested in flying and just really wanted to do that. He was so captured by the space program and was just very drawn to that. It became a passion when he was a very little boy, so he pursued that relentlessly throughout his school career.”
Less than a month after that first date, Rick wrote a letter to NASA from his Texas Tech dorm room, 612 Murdough, asking for information on becoming either an astronaut pilot or a mission specialist. He wanted to know what requirements he would need to fulfill and if any special training programs existed for undergraduate students heading that direction. If there were, he requested an application.
But even while focusing on space, the mechanical engineering major didn't miss opportunities on the ground.
“He also had an absolute passion for music and singing,” Evelyn said. “So while he was at Texas Tech, not only did he work really hard on his engineering classes, but he was in the highest Texas Tech choir and absolutely loved that, and was in some plays. He was able to enjoy that diversity in his education, and I think it helped him have balance.”
After four years of running track and excelling at the Naval Academy, midshipman Willie McCool graduated second in his class in 1983. The top 1 percent of the class was sent to the University of Maryland for master's degrees, so in 1985, Willie finished his master's in computer science. Flight training was next on his agenda.
“He was No. 1 at flight school at Naval Air Station Pensacola when he went to flight training,” Barry said. “He had all these really high checks in the block for the Navy that made him stand out from the rest in terms of being a naval aviator.”
After three years and two deployments, he was selected for the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School/Test Pilot School in Monterey, California. In 1992, he graduated top of his class from there, too, with a second master's degree, this time in aeronautical engineering.
“That's how he got involved with NASA,” Audrey said. “He was in Monterey and was picked up by the Navy. He was harassed, talked into it more than anything – ‘you should apply for NASA' – by his buddies because he was No. 1 in his class in aeronautical engineering and knew all the stuff. They said, ‘You know, you should do this.'”
In Lubbock, Rick Husband had started his military career, too. He joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program at Texas Tech and upon his graduation May 10, 1980, he was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. He and Evelyn discussed marriage throughout college, but both had goals they wanted to attain first.
“He had a deferred assignment because there were too many people starting pilot training,” Evelyn said. Rick worked for six months for an engineering firm in Amarillo, waiting to begin his active duty service in the military. In October, he began pilot training at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Oklahoma, while Evelyn moved to Dallas to work for WBAP radio.
“He went through a year of pilot training that every pilot in the military goes through,” Evelyn said. “It was a very grueling schedule. Some weeks he was flying late at night, some mornings he had to be in at 2 a.m. Both he and I knew that would have been an extremely difficult challenge to start a new marriage, so I'm glad we made that decision to wait until he was finished with that.
“But we were very serious, we knew that was the direction we were headed for marriage, so he visited me a few times in Dallas and I went to Enid a few times, and just prior to his graduation from pilot training, he proposed. So we had to figure it out around the military's schedule when we could get married. It worked out for us to get married Feb. 27, 1982.”
The newlyweds started out at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida where Rick was assigned his first aircraft, an F-4. After training, he flew the F-4E for two-and-a-half years at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia. He went through F-4 Instructor School back at Homestead in 1985 and was assigned as an academic instructor and F-4E instructor pilot at George Air Force Base in California. In December 1987, Rick was assigned to Edwards Air Force Base in California. While there, he took a satellite course on base to earn his master's degree in mechanical engineering through Fresno State University.
“During that whole timeframe between the ‘80s to the ‘90s, the next phase of qualification Rick needed to achieve was test flight hours, which is a requirement for a pilot astronaut,” Evelyn said. “He had many, many hours in the F-4 and subsequently started applying to U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards. Eventually he got to the point that he qualified. In 1988, he went through test pilot school. Our plans, we knew, were starting to move toward the direction of his dream of becoming an astronaut.”
Willie McCool was selected for NASA in April 1996 in the largest class ever accepted.
“They were calling themselves ‘the sardines' because they were so big and so cramped into the space. At that time, NASA was expanding its operations,” Audrey said. “Everybody had ancillary positions. You don't just become an astronaut and go fly; you have other things you have to do, so Willie was assigned to redo the computer systems for the shuttle.”
When it was Willie's turn for crew assignment, the head of the astronaut department wanted him to continue the development of the software for the shuttle, so he was asked to delay his opportunities to fly.
“His classmates were flying sooner than him and it was actually kind of an irritation for him to be doing software while the other guys were flying,” Audrey explained.
“All the commanders on all the shuttle missions wanted him as the pilot on their mission, and unfortunately because of his expertise, he wasn't available,” Barry added. “But when you're good, you're good.”
“But when you go to become an astronaut, you go to fly,” Audrey said.
Rick was certainly doing his share of flying – just not in space. After the Challenger explosion on Jan. 28, 1986, killed its entire crew, NASA had stopped all space shuttle missions for three years to determine the cause. Rick applied to NASA once during that time but found they were not hiring. After eventually being granted an interview – a feat in itself, Evelyn said, as fewer than 100 people were interviewed out of thousands of applicants – Rick knew he had two options: He would be given another assignment, probably overseas, or he would become an astronaut.
He was not selected on his first application, although coming so close encouraged him, Evelyn said. In June 1992, the pair and their young daughter, Laura, moved to England where Rick flew with the Royal Air Force Base as an exchange test pilot.
“While we were there, he applied again,” Evelyn said. “This time, he flew back to Houston, rented a car and ate a Whataburger because he could – we didn't have those in England. He interviewed in Houston, went through the week's process and this time he was selected. We got the call in December 1994. That same week, we found out he'd been promoted early in the military to the next rank and we also found out we were pregnant with our second child – it was a week of a lot of news. We were very excited and so our son Matthew got to be born in Texas.”
Rick's astronaut career, more than 30 years in the making, began in February 1995.
“Astronaut training lasts a little over a year but a lot of other training follows that, and once you're assigned a mission there's extensive training for that specific mission and the goals of that mission,” Evelyn said. Rick's first mission was STS-96, a 10-day mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in May and June 1999. It was the first flight to dock with the new International Space Station. “He was assigned that about a year before and trained with that crew, and he had notebooks that were 5 or 6 inches thick of information he would bring home nightly that he had to study to prepare for that mission. The studying never stopped, ever.”
Rick was one of the last people in his astronaut group to be assigned a flight, but Evelyn remembers he kept his cool.
“I kept telling him they were saving the best for last,” she said. “He was a very patient man, so he was not upset or nervous that he wasn't getting assigned a flight. When he was assigned, it was with just an incredible crew. Training was very work intensive, but when you're doing something that you're incredibly excited about and passionate about, it's hard to have a bad day.”
Both NASA pilots, Rick and Willie met in the astronaut office and immediately hit it off.
“Willie and Rick Husband had developed a relationship when Rick came back from his first flight,” Barry said. “They really needed a pilot and to be a pilot on the shuttle, you have to graduate from either the Naval test pilot school or the Air Force test pilot school; you can't just be a pilot. Willie was the kind of individual who had a tremendous working relationship with everybody, all the other astronauts, just because of his personality. Everybody wanted him on the crew.”
Rick heard rumors long before the actual announcement was made about STS-107 that he was being tapped as commander and that Willie was going to be the pilot.
“He was extremely excited about that,” Evelyn said. “He really thought the world of Willie; he was an extremely sharp man. The crew was actually all assigned except the commander and the pilot; they had to wait a long time to secure the official word, so he was super excited when that happened.”
In addition to Rick and Willie, the crew included mission specialists David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson and Laurel B. Clark and payload specialist Ilan Ramon, NASA's first Israeli astronaut.
“Rick just really liked Willie; there was no one who didn't like Willie,” Evelyn said. “He was a real standup guy, very professional but so pleasant. And it was just a cool connection for us because we went to Texas Tech and Willie went to high school in Lubbock, we felt like the crew was getting an incredible cultural experience. Commander from Amarillo and pilot from Lubbock, they couldn't get any better than that. It was a wonderful connection for us and really nice to have that hometown connection with each other.”
During the 16-day mission, the crew needed to complete more than 80 experiments on board. But because the mission was delayed repeatedly, extending their training time to nearly two years, the crew had plenty of time to become familiar with the tasks.
Preparing to go
Al Sacco, dean of the Texas Tech Whitacre College of Engineering, flew on the Columbia as a payload specialist for STS-73 in 1995.
“That was called the United States Microgravity Lab 2 (USML2) and it was a science mission, mostly around material science but also fluid dynamics,” Sacco said. “We looked at the growth of protein crystals; we grew the first HIV crystals in orbit, which they used in part to develop the retrodrugs; we grew zeolite crystals, a catalyst for the petroleum industry, to try to figure out how to make them more active; grew a lot of crystals that are used in imaging equipment to look at the reduction of defects; did a lot of fluid dynamic experiments, a lot of biological experiments, ran the whole gamut.
“I knew all the science missions they were doing on STS-107 because about half of them were updated materials that I'd done on USML2.”
Sacco said he came close to doing the experiments himself.
“I was assigned to STS-107; I got bumped for the Israeli astronaut, which, as it turns out, was a good thing,” Sacco said. “I knew Rick pretty well and McCool a little bit. He wasn't a good friend, but I'd call him an associate. I started the initial training with them and then I got replaced by the Israeli astronaut that they put on. I was the only non-NASA person; I was a guy from a university who came in for that flight, so I was the one they bumped when the politics said they wanted to fly someone from Israel. I was training with them for about two months.”
Barry was teaching at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas at the time, and Willie flew out to speak to his father's class about NASA and the manned Mars mission.
“We had to reschedule where we held it because there was more faculty from all over the university that showed up than my students,” Barry recalled. “We had to go to the big auditorium where he did an outstanding presentation on all the factors of the manned Mars mission and why it's a minimum 3- to 6-year mission to go to Mars. He had a lot of insights and information on that particular endeavor.
“He was very interested in long-duration space flight and all the technical issues to make it happen, from the importance of the Mars rovers and returning the soil samples back to NASA from Mars so that they could determine whether or not they could manufacture fuel based on the content of the soil, and all of the physiological things like long-duration weightlessness and the effect on the loss of calcium and bone deterioration, muscle deterioration, that kind of thing. He was interested in all of those things.”
But instead of looking to their son's potential future, Barry and Audrey were focused on getting his first mission out of the way.
“You can't do anything until you've done that,” Audrey said.
In the days leading up to the launch, the crew went into quarantine – a normal NASA procedure designed to keep crew members from getting sick before a mission – and communication with the outside world was heavily restricted.
“They're put in quarantine, so you don't hear much of anything,” Audrey said. “It's not like you're on the phone. You're in quarantine, No. 1, because you don't want any contamination of any kind, and they're obviously very busy with the launch and preparations and so forth. The only thing they have is each crew has a barbecue with the families more or less the night before they're going to fly. It's a very limited number of people and that's the last chance you get to talk to them.”
As the excited families gathered to say their farewells, the McCools had mixed emotions.
“There were highs and lows,” Audrey said. “Everybody was excited about the trip, but everybody also recognized the danger. If you go, you could not be coming home. This is not just like a walk around the block. While it was a celebration, because everybody was happy and excited and they were finally going on this mission after all of this delay, there was also a lot of emotion involved with it because you might not see them again.”
Evelyn remembers mostly the good parts.
“We'd flown there a few days before, had a reception and I'd spent time with Rick,” she said. “He was in quarantine at that point so unfortunately Laura and Matthew couldn't see him; they were 12 and 7 at the time. But Rick and I got to spend time together, and my parents and Rick's mom and brother got to see Rick.
“Everybody was extremely excited; it was the day they'd waited for, for quite some time. We had some great private time together as well as time together with the other crew families. I had absolutely no foreboding that anything would be wrong or any problems; I was just super proud of him and excited that they were finally going to get to experience what they'd trained for, for so long.”
Evelyn, Laura and Matthew woke up in their hotel room on the morning of the launch, Jan. 16, 2003. Rick had arranged for presents to be delivered to his family members after the launch.
“He had so many things to do, but he really kept his priorities straight – put God first, family second and job third, even if your job is flying into space – and so he was very focused on this,” Evelyn said. “He made a videotape for Matthew and a videotape for Laura, and in those videotapes, he had 16 different recordings of devotional time with them with a devotional book they did every day. So he would read the Bible verse and the story and then a prayer, and then he would just talk to them for a few moments, so he made sure they had that to watch while he was in space. The kids received those videotapes the morning of the launch, which was extremely meaningful.”
As the McCools sat in the bleachers overlooking Columbia at Kennedy Space Center, Barry thought about the little boy he'd seen grow up into an incredible man.
“You see the big board clicking 10, 9, 8 with the shuttle in the background and everything, and I'm sitting pretty high up in the bleachers with Audrey and the family, waiting for it to go,” Barry said. “And when it launches, there's this tremendous resonance like kettle drums at the symphony. You can feel the resonance in your chest. And the ground's shaking. And you see this beautiful Chamber of Commerce Florida day with the bright sunshine and a few clouds and the Columbia launching and going up, and it was about 10 or 15 seconds into the launch when it kind of hit me, ‘that's my little boy sitting on 2 million tons of TNT going into space.' And tears kind of run down the cheeks at that point.
“Then we packed up and went home.”
Sacco says he knows from experience what the mission would have been like for the people on it.
“They would have had a ball; I knew exactly what they were doing and how they were doing it. They would have had a lot of fun,” he said.
“I know you've seen pictures, but it's not the same as being there,” Sacco added. “The earth is strikingly beautiful and they would have been wowed by that. The freefall environment of low-earth orbit, what people call zero gravity, is a very pleasant environment once you're in it. Your body gets used to it – it's a lot more pleasant than being here on the ground. And it's fun; it's just a fun place to be. You realize the magnitude of the cosmos, the universe. You realize that the earth is just like a small grain of sand on a very large beach. It's very humbling because you realize that you're a very small part of the earth, which is an infinitesimal part of the universe, so it's really very humbling when you realize we're not very important in the whole scheme of things. I'm sure they felt that; everybody does.
“And just the magnitude of what you're doing suddenly strikes you. You're in space: you've read about it since you were a kid, you've seen movies, but suddenly you're there. I'm sure it was great.”
Sacco did receive microwave messages from the crew during their mission, which Mission Control forwarded to him.
“I knew they loved it because they sent me the equivalent of text messages down every once in a while – all of them did; they'd go through Mission Control and they'd send them as an email to us,” he said. “I'd get this message, ‘Hey, we're having fun; I know you're not.' They'd be kidding, you know. And they were right; I was teaching class and cleaning the house.”
Spouses and mission control were the only ones able to speak to the shuttle crew. Evelyn remembers the last time she spoke with Rick was on Jan. 28 – exactly 26 years after their first date and 17 years after the Challenger explosion.
The final day of the mission, Sacco received a message from one of the women on board.
“It came down and said that she had run the experiments I was supposed to run, one of which was my own experiment, and she thought she had done a great job so I owed her a dinner and she wanted to take her family with her,” he recalled. “‘When are you going to be down to Houston again' – because I was in Boston at the time – ‘so you can take us out to dinner?' And she said, ‘You were right, this was great, I loved it,' because I had told her she's going to love it; it was her first flight.”
On the morning of Columbia's planned return to Earth, Barry and Audrey McCool watched the capsule fly over their home in Las Vegas.
“I'm standing out there just like any parent at a little league baseball or football game, ‘Yeah, there goes Willie!' and I'm taking pictures as it goes across the sky,” Barry said. “I'm on the phone to my daughter who was at Cape Canaveral with her family waiting for the shuttle to land. I'm telling her, ‘Willie's on the way, he just went across.'”
Inside the house, Barry had CNN on the television and NASA Direct on the computer. NASA Direct was airing audio from the capsule communicator (CAPCOM), the person at Mission Control responsible for communicating with the shuttle crew. He could hear in the background the radio transmissions from the Alamogordo, New Mexico, tracking station.
“You hear CAPCOM saying, ‘Columbia, this is Houston. How copy?' When you're going through the reentry, there's a particular point where you don't have any radio transmission because they're going through the atmosphere. But when they come out, that's when you reestablish communications,” Barry explained. “You hear this repetitive transmission, ‘Columbia, this is Houston.' And then I hear the tracking station, you have to really listen close to hear it, and the transmission is, ‘Houston, this is Alamogordo, I no longer have an infrared or radar contact on Columbia.' And at about that point you see the launch director's face and on television is the starburst of the shuttle burning up on reentry. I looked at Audrey and I said, ‘Willie's gone.'
“The shuttle blew up on reentry and we knew it because of what I've done in the military. I knew it instantaneously. You're traveling at Mach 25 at 103,000 or 108,000 feet at 25,000 miles an hour – there's no way anybody's going to survive that.”
In retrospect, Audrey said, the shuttle was already starting to break apart as it passed over Las Vegas.
“There were things that shouldn't be there,” she said. “We saw flashes, little particles, but we just thought it was part of the atmosphere or something. We were calling our daughter and providing information because they didn't know anything. We were providing information to the families at the landing site.”
In the bleachers at Kennedy Space Center, Evelyn and her children had watched the skies eagerly as the countdown clock got closer and closer to the landing time.
“When the clock counted down to zero and then started counting back up positive numbers, I had a very ominous feeling that something was horribly wrong,” she said. “We were surrounded by astronauts who took us back to crew quarters. We had to wait quite some time for an official notification of what was happening, but there was pretty much no doubt in anyone's mind that it wasn't good.”
While waiting, she called her father in Amarillo.
“He was sobbing, and so I knew that wasn't good,” Evelyn said. “He was actually the first one who told me that Rick had not survived, before we were officially told.”
Eventually the news came: the cabin had broken apart upon reentry and there were no survivors. Shortly afterward, the families had a conference call with President George W. Bush extending his sympathy and concern.
“At that point, when you walk through a crisis or something like that in your life, everything kind of slows down,” Evelyn said. “It gives a very surreal feel to it. It's shock, and it's also a gift from God to not feel the full assault of the information you're receiving.
“We were in crew quarters, so we went and laid down on Rick's bed, with his clothes packed there, waiting for him, his billfold and comb and everything. He didn't use any of that in space so all of that stuff was there. We were just in shock.”
Sacco remembers he was vacuuming the rug in the bedroom of his Boston home when his phone rang. It was one of his former crewmates, Michael López-Alegría.
“He said to me, ‘Did you hear that the Columbia is 14 minutes overdue?' and we both knew what that meant: It was on the ground. The question is, was it in one piece or not?” Sacco said. “And when they couldn't find it, if you're in that business you know it had to have come apart because otherwise they would have been able to locate it quicker.
“And he said, ‘We may be looking for volunteers to come out and help look for survivors.' We knew there'd be no survivors; what he was trying to say was looking for people and looking for pieces. ‘Would you be willing to do it if we needed you?' And I said ‘Yeah,' so then I immediately put on the TV and started following the news a little bit. Finally they showed those pictures coming back where you saw all those pieces and I knew it came apart and that was the end of it. You don't survive that kind of thing.”
Reflecting on the loss of his friends, and the fact that he could have been with them, Sacco had mixed feelings.
“One is ‘I was supposed to be on that crew,' so you feel sort of guilty – ‘Well how come I wasn't on that crew?'” he said. “And then they're your friends. Over time, though, I realized a couple of things. One is they died doing what they loved to do and very few of us have that opportunity. I wish it was quick and I hope it was quick. But other than that, I remember the good times with these people.”
After the families were taken back to crew quarters, everyone in the bleachers was still waiting.
“In NASA, the immediate family is the wife or husband. Parents were not considered immediate family, so they didn't tell the other families anything,” Barry said. “The bus arrives, Willie's wife, Lani, and all the other families get on the bus, and they leave. All the other brothers and sisters and everything were sitting in the bleachers going, ‘Where's the shuttle?' They were on a bus heading back to the visitor's center when Audrey called and let Kirstie, our daughter, know. She told everybody else on the bus what happened.”
The non-immediate family members were put in a room, still with no official information.
“The only way they knew anything was people with cell phones getting calls in,” Audrey said. “You can tell why NASA didn't want to go down and say, ‘Look guys, sorry you made it here, but the shuttle exploded.'”
The families were hoping for a miracle.
“They're sitting there waiting for the shuttle to land,” Barry said. “They know you don't have any fuel to go around. You land or you don't. They're thinking, ‘Where's the shuttle? We haven't heard the sonic booms that break the sound barrier.' None of that's happening and NASA's saying nothing.
“But, there are two other landing sites: One in Oklahoma and one out at Edwards Air Force Base. The possibility is that the shuttle could have landed elsewhere instead of Florida.”
As Evelyn struggled to process the news of Rick's death, she also had to focus on one hard reality: she was now a single mother to Laura and Matthew.
“As a mom, my first concern was for my kids, so I was extremely focused on them and their well-being,” she said. “We were all devastated and we were in shock; we weren't even really crying, just trying to grasp it. I remember looking up at the sky when they didn't land and just not even being able to wrap my mind around the fact that that was it, that Rick's life had come to an end. He was 45 years old. It took me a very long time to even grasp that; it was so difficult to process.
“We had, and still do have, a very strong faith in God so I really didn't know what to pray at that point but I just asked the Lord to be with us and to help us, to help Laura and Matthew and to help the crew families.”
While Evelyn's family waited at the crew quarters, someone from NASA went to their hotel room to pack their things for the trip home. In a moment of clarity, Evelyn remembered to ask for something she didn't want her children to lose: the videotaped devotionals from Rick were in the hotel room's TV cabinet.
“They were very precious to us,” she said. “We still have them. They're painful to watch, but they're very important.”
The families flew home later that day on a private NASA plane, the same one they would have taken home the following day with the shuttle crew if all had gone according to plan.
“They had some food on the flight and nobody was hungry,” Evelyn said. “I just remember looking at Laura and Matthew and I offered Matthew some food and he ate a little bit – he was 7 years old. I remember telling him, ‘Matthew, when we get home, if you want to play with Danny or if you want to do something, that's fine with me.' And he just looked at me like, ‘Are you serious?' because I think all of us were just thinking, ‘Has our life come to an end?'
“We just didn't know what it would look like once we got home. Those first few days, we just had to take it minute by minute. We really couldn't go much further than that. But I felt very held by God. It's hard to find the words to explain just how secure I felt because of my faith and that he walked through that horrible, horrible tragedy with us and helped us navigate through some incredibly challenging days.”
As word of the tragedy spread, tributes began raining down upon NASA. Letters, cards, quilts, stuffed animals, songs, poems and more came in from school children, dignitaries – any and every group. NASA collected it all, and then cataloged, managed and handled it for the families.
“I received mail every day for the first few months and the mail lady would have to bring me buckets of mail,” Evelyn remembers. “There were people at my house working every single day going through that and helping me. It was hard enough losing my husband and becoming a widow, but on top of that he's now a national hero. It was pretty overwhelming.”
The worst part for Evelyn, though, was waiting for closure.
“They didn't find the crew remains immediately, so for several days we didn't even know if those would ever be found,” she explained. “The last moments the shuttle was flying, it went between Amarillo and Lubbock. Rick was sitting on the Amarillo side and Willie would have been sitting on the Lubbock side, almost like flying through a goal post. So when they crashed, it was all over East Texas.
“It was almost a week before they located all of the crew remains, but they did locate them. So even though Rick died on the first of February, I did not have the funeral until the 20th of February. That was just an excruciatingly long period of time between the accident and the funeral, and just the process I had to go through of getting briefings every day from NASA on what was happening. It was very challenging.”
More than seven years later, in the spring of 2010, Monte L. Monroe, archivist of the Southwest Collection at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library at Texas Tech, received an unexpected call from a friend. Susan Smith, who worked in institutional development for Texas Tech in Houston, went to elementary school with Rick in Amarillo and wanted to know if the Southwest Collection would be interested in Rick's records.
Monroe jumped at the opportunity.
“In collection development like this, you have to be sensitive to the prospective donors and their needs and desires, and this one was special because of the international tragedy aspect of the whole Columbia event,” he said. “I was cognizant of that. Evelyn was hesitant to give some things up but we developed a really close relationship.”
Monroe gave Evelyn an extensive tour of the archive, answering many questions and setting her mind at ease that she could donate what she wanted. Laura was then in college and Matthew in high school. Evelyn wanted to make sure she didn't move too quickly and end up donating something the kids would want when they were older.
“Rick and I have an absolute love for Texas Tech: our alma mater, where we fell in love, met and married later, so it was something I didn't have to struggle with at all,” she said. “When I figured out that was an option for all of his collection to go to Texas Tech, it made absolute perfect sense; it was a perfect fit as such an integral part of our lives. And I knew, absolutely without any hesitation, that Rick would have been so thrilled that I made that decision.
“When I met Monte and we talked through the process of donating Rick's collection, he just became an immediate friend, so close and so perfect in the way he managed everything. He totally understood the sensitivity of this and the difficulty, and just greatly supported us through the navigation of going through all of Rick's belongings and selecting what would be appropriate for the collection.”
On Nov. 11, 2010, Monroe and Southwest Collection registrar John Perrin drove from Lubbock to Houston to pick up the Rick Husband collection from Evelyn and Bill Thompson, who she married in early 2008.
“We took these things out of a storage shelter, out of the garage and out of their home and they'd never been tampered with since they were put in storage. Most of the family members of Columbia and Challenger are still having a hard time coming to grips with this, so many times these things are left in storage,” Monroe said. “We loaded all this stuff up in pouring rain in Houston. We didn't get back until late at night. I can remember driving across Texas in our big 1-ton van with materials right up against the back of our heads because we had to pack and repack that van twice just to get it all in there.
“John and I were talking about the fact that here we are with one of the most distinguished Americans' personal history right up against the back of our headrests. We thought about the Columbia, the astronauts and the disaster that day. In the back, we have some of Rick's contact lenses; his charred, broken CD of ‘James Taylor's Greatest Hits,' and you just think about, here they are at the top of their game one instant and gone in an eye blink. It gave us a great respect for them.”
In Evelyn's words, having Rick's materials at the Southwest Collection has been a godsend.
“We recently donated a few items to Kennedy Space Center for a new exhibit remembering the Challenger and Columbia crews, and Monte came as my guest to the dedication,” she said. “It's very hard when you lose someone, especially in this way, just the magnitude of it, but I really am a firm believer in what the Bible says about beauty coming out of ashes, and having Rick's collection at Texas Tech has really been a wonderful way to honor him and feel like it's blessing other people.”
The McCools have shared their private pictures of Willie, which they allowed the Southwest Collection to digitize, and one day those materials will be donated as well, Monroe said. But the bulk of Willie's materials are still with his wife and three sons. The oldest is a captain in the Marine Corps, living in Okinawa, Japan, with four children of his own. The middle son is a media specialist in Washington state, living near his mother to help her. And the youngest is an artist in New York City.
Rick and Evelyn's children have grown up, too. Matthew is 20 years old and a student at John Brown University. Laura, 25, graduated from Trinity University and now serves on the National Challenger Board of Education, working with Challenger labs throughout the country.
“It was tough on these families and you have to be sensitive to that,” Monroe explained. “It's much different than going out and picking up a ranching collection, let's say. Even though those kinds of collections are just as meaningful to their family members as this one is, it was because of the national and international exposure this event got that made it so tough on the families, I believe.
“As part of this collection, there were a lot of materials from this great national outpouring of grief: from little school kids to churches to quilting societies that sent quilts, to private individuals, to congressmen, senators and big shots. And so, all of these folks sent all these materials to Evelyn through NASA, and that's part of the collection. It shows how extensive the outpouring of sympathy was to the families, not just Rick's but the families of all that were lost that day.”
When a Columbia museum was established in Hemphill, Texas, where most of the debris was recovered, Monroe helped fulfill Evelyn's desire for Rick to have a presence there. Over the past two years, they have worked with NASA and the Kennedy Space Center on a Fallen Heroes exhibit that became a component of the Atlantis Space Shuttle display and complex on the Kennedy Space Center compound.
“Our staff worked very hard to make that happen because we felt that we needed to properly honor these great Americans,” Monroe said. “This is a world-class collection and we're very proud to be the archive of record for that collection. Hopefully we'll gain some of the other family members when they're ready to do it. We made it apparent to them that Texas Tech has a great interest in that.
“The thing that's unique about Evelyn is she was the commander's widow. She felt compelled to lead the way in making this donation and she felt like Texas Tech would be the best place for it. Our job was to lead them along the path of making this kind of donation, which could have been thrown in a dumpster. But, they were saved. Now, hundreds of years from now, students, historians, researchers will be able to look at Rick Husband's records and realize just how well-trained these people were, how difficult their training was, how difficult their missions were and how passionately they loved what they were doing.”