Fifteen years after the space shuttle’s explosion, Col. Paul Lockhart recalls the “honor and privilege” of bringing home his longtime friend, Col. Rick Husband.
The morning of Feb. 1, 2003, started as a relatively normal Saturday for Col. Paul Lockhart. His wife, Mary, was in Europe for her job as a U.S. Air Force Reservist, so he was preparing breakfast for their two young daughters. Over the sounds of the girls' giggles, mingled with the sound effects from their morning cartoons, the phone suddenly rang.
Lockhart, an Air Force pilot-turned-NASA astronaut, was momentarily surprised to hear the voice of a crewmate from his most recent spaceflight, which had returned to Earth less than two months earlier.
That very morning, in fact, NASA's current spaceflight – mission STS-107 aboard the space shuttle Columbia – was due to return to Earth. And that's what the call was about.
“He said they'd lost contact with the orbiter on re-entry,” Lockhart recalled.
He went into the living room and changed the TV channel to the news. That's where he learned what the entire country would soon be talking about: Columbia had disintegrated upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere, killing all seven people aboard.
While he knew nearly all of them, one in particular stood out. Col. Rick Husband, Columbia's commander, had been a friend of Lockhart's for decades and a mentor throughout his career. Their wives were close. Their families ate dinner at one another's homes.
And now Rick was gone forever.
“I didn't want the children to really understand, so I changed the TV back to what they were watching,” Lockhart said. “From there, it was a quick set of phone calls that were starting to come in from the astronaut corps because of all the actions that were going to be necessary.”
Paul and Rick grew up in the same Amarillo neighborhood. Rick knew early on that he wanted to be an astronaut, and that certainty was one of the things that drew the boys together.
“We knew each other as young teenagers,” Lockhart said. “We went to different schools, but we knew of each other for a long time. I distinctly remember sitting in his living room at some point, both of us determining whether we wanted to go into the Air Force so we could go to NASA someday.”
Paul, a year older than Rick, graduated from Tascosa High School in 1974 and headed to Texas Tech University. Rick graduated in 1975 from Amarillo High School and followed his friend to Lubbock. While at Texas Tech, though, their paths diverged.
Paul focused on mathematics, eventually going to Austria on a Rotary Fellowship, while Rick studied mechanical engineering and entered the Air Force ROTC. In 1977, Rick met and fell in love with Evelyn Neely, a fellow Texas Tech student from Amarillo, who had gone to elementary school with Paul.
When Paul graduated in 1978, he went to graduate school, where he entered the Air Force ROTC. Upon Rick's graduation in 1980, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Force and went immediately into pilot training, his mind still fixed on NASA. Just before graduating from pilot training, Rick proposed to Evelyn, and they were married in 1982.
Paul earned his master's degree in aerospace engineering in 1981, at which point he, too, was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Force. His first assignment sent him to Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York. While there, he met and fell in love with Mary Theresa Germaine, who was the Wing Weather Officer at the base. They were married in 1986.
“Typically, the sequence of events is, you go through pilot training, either with the Air Force or one of the other services, and then you fly operationally for a couple of tours,” Lockhart said. “So at some point, say five or 10 years down the road, you apply to Test Pilot School. Rick had already entered into the Air Force, so his cycle of assignments was one ahead of me.”
In December 1987, Rick was assigned to Edwards Air Force Base in California, where he entered the Air Force Test Pilot School. He was soon joined by an old friend.
“He went to Test Pilot School approximately a year and a half before I did,” Lockhart said. “When I showed up, he was finishing his tour and starting to work as a test pilot.”
Because Rick and Evelyn were accustomed to Test Pilot School life, they helped Paul and Mary to settle in.
“His family was very gracious to us when we got to Edwards Air Force Base,” Lockhart said. “My wife wasn't from Texas, but she had met Evelyn. We spent several dinners at their house, and he spoke to me about Test Pilot School and what his assignments were after that.”
Not long after that, their paths diverged again. As soon as Paul finished Test Pilot School, he was assigned to the Test Wing at the Air Force Developmental Test Center at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Only a few months earlier, in June 1992, Rick had been assigned to the Aircraft and Armament Evaluation Establishment at Boscombe Down, England, as an exchange test pilot with the Royal Air Force. While there, he submitted the application that would make him an astronaut.
After flying to Houston for an interview and back to England to wait, Rick finally got the call he'd been waiting for in December 1994. He eagerly moved back to Texas with Evelyn, who was then pregnant with their son, and their preschool-age daughter. He reported to Johnson Space Center in March 1995 to begin a year of training and evaluation. And soon after he finished, he was joined again by his old friend.
Lockhart was selected by NASA in April 1996 and reported to Johnson Space Center in August. And almost like déjà vu, he and Mary fell right back into their previously established mentoring role with the Husbands.
“Now, we in the military were used to that,” Lockhart explained. “That's just the way it usually happens – you're usually assigned a sponsor, so it just made natural sense that, when we got to NASA, he became my sponsor. We actually stayed in his house for several days while we were looking for an apartment.”
As Paul and Mary, now with their daughters in tow, settled into life in Houston, the mentoring role relaxed into one of just friendship.
“At that point, we were both astronauts in the corps waiting to be assigned a flight,” Lockhart said. “I began my initial training to be a shuttle pilot and he'd already gone through his initial training, so he was waiting for assignment. At some point soon after I got there, he was assigned to his first flight, so he began the long process of training for that specific mission while I was still doing my basic learning of the shuttle and mission operations.”
That meant while Rick worked with his team, he couldn't interact daily with Paul. The astronaut office at NASA is highly dispersed, Lockhart explained, not only in terms of functions, which often require traveling to other NASA facilities, but also in terms of physical working space.
“They have all astronauts in a certain building on two different floors,” he said. “You are assigned an office with five or six other astronauts. Rick and I were always assigned to other rooms, so we never worked together that way, but we did work together on technical assignments. I would say our interactions were on a professional basis at work, but there were always the social events that occurred at NASA. And our wives became close friends, so we'd have them over for dinner and vice versa.”
Rick's first mission into space was STS-96, the first flight to dock with the International Space Station. For months prior, he took home notebooks 5 and 6 inches thick every night filled with information to study. But in the end, his preparation paid off.
Rick piloted the space shuttle Discovery for 10 days in May and June 1999, delivering supplies in preparation for the space station's first crew that would arrive the next year. On June 6, Discovery returned safely to Earth.
“I spoke to Rick after his first flight to get his impressions of being the rookie pilot on his mission,” Lockhart said. “He was, as always, very open and very direct about his thoughts about what the rookie pilot needs to do to help the mission. From him and all the other pilots I'd speak to, I learned how to prepare for my upcoming missions.
“It wasn't on a daily basis of being a mentor, but on a basis of advice we'd have when our families got together and we'd talk. I'd ask, ‘OK, what did you find on re-entry? Was there anything particularly of interest?' and things of that nature. He was always very open and quick to respond and very helpful. Rick was well known in the office as somebody who was quick to support and someone you could always count on.”
As Lockhart began preparations for his first assignment as the pilot on STS-111, he received valuable advice from Rick, but not just in words.
“Rick was less in terms of giving me advice about being a pilot, per se, than he showed through his actions,” Lockhart said. “Rick was a consummate test pilot; he was always completely prepared. He was always doing extra simulations, always doing extra research and study so he was prepared.”
But at the same time, he advised Paul to keep his priorities straight and not become too wrapped up in work at the expense of more important things.
“He talked about how the training for each mission could consume you, which is the case because there's always a lot to do,” Lockhart said. “But he was always somebody who made sure he took care of his family, too. He reminded me when I would talk to him, ‘Hey, don't forget your wife has to watch out for the two little ones,' or ‘Your wife has these considerations that she has to do, too,' including the preparation for the launch.
“That requires a lot of effort because it becomes a big social event, not just for NASA and your crew, but also for each astronaut's friends and family. You can liken it to a wedding reception in a way. Both he and Evelyn were very supportive in describing how they had gone through their launch entertainment events and what they found best to keep the kids engaged and things of that nature. Both he and Evelyn were top notch in that respect.”
On June 5, 2002, Paul and his crew launched toward the International Space Station aboard the space shuttle Endeavour. They delivered research equipment as well as a new resident crew for the space station, collectively known as Expedition 5, and repaired the station's robot arm. On June 19, they returned to Earth, bringing home Expedition 4, the three-man crew that had been living on the International Space Station for more than six months.
Almost as soon as he landed, Lockhart was assigned to a new 14-day mission, STS-113, which would launch in late November – just over five months away. He threw himself into his training and preparations.
Likewise, Rick was busy preparing for his second mission, STS-107.
“Everybody knew he was very good pilot,” Lockhart said, “but he flew as a commander on his second mission, which is rare. You have to have demonstrated yourself as being exceptional, and that showed in what he did.”
Because of their respective training protocols, Rick and Paul were nearly always with their teams, separated from each other and everyone else.
“Those took place at two different locations,” Lockhart said. “I saw very little of Rick before he went on his second mission, except for after I landed on my first mission. He was very kind to invite Mary and me over to dinner to talk about my first mission. That was probably in July 2002, and that was the last time I saw him.”
With Lockhart at the controls, the crew of STS-113 launched to the International Space Station on Nov. 23, 2002, taking with it more supplies and equipment as well as Expedition 6, the next three-man resident crew.
But with Paul in space, Rick took care of things on the ground. Even while inundated with his own upcoming mission, he kept in touch with Mary to make sure she was doing OK.
“That's just the way Rick was. He and Evelyn took my wife and children out for a day while I was on orbit just to make sure everything was going well and to give them a break,” Lockhart said. “It's a pretty tense period for the wives because they're watching the children, the children are spun up because there's so much tension, and they're out of school some time because they go to the launch and they go to recovery and it throws them out of their routine. It's a pretty hectic and tense time.
“Rick and Evelyn knew that, so they came and picked up my wife and children and spent time with them. It was very kind. It shows the thoughtfulness that came out of both of them.”
STS-113 returned safely to Earth on Dec. 7, 2002. Although no one knew it yet, it would be the last safe return for more than two and a half years.
By the time it launched on Jan. 16, 2003, STS-107 aboard the space shuttle Columbia had been delayed 18 times over a span of more than two years. Rick was eager to go, as was his pilot, Willie McCool. They had bonded after Rick's first flight thanks to a shared Texas Tech connection – Willie's parents, Barry and Audrey McCool, were both faculty members in the College of Human Sciences.
Rick, who was under quarantine before his mission, didn't get to see his 12-year-old daughter or his 7-year-old son in the last days before the launch, but he spent time with Evelyn and arranged for presents to be delivered to his family after the launch.
While in orbit, Rick and his crew successfully performed more than 80 science experiments that required a zero-gravity atmosphere. After completing the experiments, the Columbia and its crew headed back to Earth.
They would never make it.
Unnoticed at the time, a piece of the foam that insulates the space shuttle from the extreme conditions of the atmosphere had broken off during launch and damaged the thermal protection system on the orbiter's left wing. As Columbia re-entered Earth's atmosphere on the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, the damaged wing slowly overheated and came apart. The crew lost control of the craft, which disintegrated seconds later in a fiery burst.
Standing in front of his television, Lockhart watched the telltale white trails of burning metal streaking through the air on their way to the ground.
“Like everyone else, I was stunned, but at the same time, just like most of the other air crews, we all knew there was a large element of risk in all parts of missions, and therefore, the fact that one mission had had a major problem was not surprising,” he said. “This was something we were used to from flying fighter aircraft and test aircraft, where you would, unfortunately, occasionally lose an aircraft and sometimes an air crew. Nonetheless, it still begins to take on surreal feeling as soon as it happens.
“In the loss of Columbia, it's even more so, because it is such a public event. Television stations start focusing on it, you start getting phone calls, not only from the office because they need to set up things such as search parties, but also from friends and family and colleagues. It starts to become very surreal very quickly.”
At NASA, all planned future missions were suspended immediately so everyone could focus on the task at hand: the aftermath of the Columbia explosion.
“The office split into three functions,” Lockhart explained. “You had one group of astronauts who went and did search and rescue to look for parts of the orbiter and make sure they could collect the remains of our astronaut friends. Then you had one group of astronauts who were assigned to the accident investigation – what happened and why did it occur?
“Then there was one group assigned to public relations, in a sense. They were the face of the astronaut office to the media and to the families involved. That tended to be where I was put, most likely because of Rick and everyone's knowledge that he and I had been close friends for a long time and we both were from Amarillo.”
Lockhart became one of the faces of NASA for the public. When then-President George W. Bush came to Houston on Feb. 4, 2003, for the Johnson Space Center memorial service, Lockhart planned and led a flyby to honor the astronauts. When groups wanted to honor Rick at their events, Lockhart attended and spoke about his friend.
“And finally, when all the remains of the astronauts had been collected and sent to Dover Air Force Base for official identification and the process of bringing the deceased astronauts home began, I was assigned to Rick's remains,” he said.
“I took it as a duty that I needed to do, and I thought it was the right thing to do. It was not unknown to me, but it was a little foreign, and it was something that was still foreign to a lot of Americans. We had not entered Operation Iraqi Freedom yet, and after that, there were a lot of instances where officers had to accompany our young men and women coming back as casualties of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That being the case, I viewed it as the honorable and right thing to do, and so I felt it was a privilege for me to have the opportunity to do so.”
It was nearly a week after the accident before all the crew remains were found, then they had to be identified – both what the remains were and to whom they had belonged.
This statue greets passengers at the Rick Husband Amarillo International Aiport.
Once that process was completed, Lockhart flew to Dover Air Force Base to begin the long journey home.
“You go to the holding hangar where they have the body wrapped in the American flag,” Lockhart said. “You're briefed on your responsibilities as the accompanying officer. They tell you what you can and cannot do in respect to the remains as they're carried on and off the aircraft. Your responsibility is to make sure the coffin and the remains inside are treated with respect at all times.
“I took it upon myself – and it was my responsibility – to be present each time someone was going to handle the coffin: the baggage handlers, the people who would transport the remains in the hearse to the airport, and then at the location when we arrived in Dallas.”
From Dallas, Lockhart rode in the hearse with Rick's coffin all the way to Amarillo. But, he says, the knowledge of sitting next to all that remained of his close friend wasn't difficult for him in the way one might think.
“It wasn't, and I don't mean that in a caustic way,” he said. “It was quite an honor and privilege to do that. It was a reflective time for me to be able to grasp what are the significant events in our lives and how we are not in control the way we think we are. Here was life all of a sudden giving me the opportunity to do something right. I viewed it as I did with the flyby when the president came; I made sure I did it right. It was the right thing to do, both for Rick and for Evelyn.”
When the hearse arrived at Rector Funeral Home in Amarillo, Evelyn was there to meet it, welcoming home both her late husband and her long-time friend.
“I think it was extremely meaningful,” Lockhart said. “It was a link back to her childhood; we had known each other in elementary school. It was a link back to our lives as young adults in high school. It was a link back to our educations at Texas Tech. It was a link back to our early careers in the Air Force. During all these periods of time, our families – as well as us, as individuals – had come together. And I can't say exactly, but I think the mere fact that I was the one who accompanied Rick back gave solace to Evelyn, knowing he would be very cared for during the long trip back from Dover Air Force Base.”
Once Rick's remains had been carried into the funeral home, Lockhart's duty to accompany home a fellow astronaut ceased.
“At that point,” he said, “I became another member of Rick's longstanding set of friends and colleagues and family who were mourning his loss.”
Fifteen years later, Lockhart's life has changed in many ways. His young daughters are now adults. He retired from the military in 2007 and from NASA in 2008. He now works in the private sector, serving as senior vice president of aerospace operations and service for Vencore Inc., a private defense contractor in Virginia, and at Blue Storm Associates, a company Mary started that develops sensors for drones.
But looking back, he said it doesn't feel like that much time has passed.
“I feel like Rick is just around the corner,” he said. “He was a big, gregarious, smiling Texan. His place in the world is surely missed, but his influence continues. He was a very good and kind man.”