Columbia Commander's Widow Rebuilds Life After Tragedy
Space Shuttle Columbia widow Evelyn Husband-Thomas is shown in this 2005 image as she stops to read the memorial plaque dedicated to the Columbia astronauts on Feb. 1, in downtown Houston. All seven astronauts died in the accident.
Credit: AP Photo/Pat Sullivan.

CAPE CANAVERAL — Five years after the loss of shuttle Columbia and seven astronauts, the widow of mission commander Rick Husband is striving to turn tragedy into triumph.

Evelyn Husband-Thompson remarried in early January during an emotional ceremony attended by NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and several members of the astronaut corps.

Her daughter, Laura, is 17 and a high school senior who soon will be deciding what college she'll be attending in the fall. Just like her dad, her passion is music. She is a talented singer who also plays piano.

Son Matthew, 12, is a sixth-grader and a brilliant student who wants to be an engineer, just like his dad. He wants to be an "aerospace architect" and design moon bases.

Life is relatively good, but returning to Kennedy Space Center today — the fifth anniversary of the February 2003 accident — is going to be hard.

"You know, it's not going to be a cakewalk by any stretch,"
Husband-Thompson said. "But we're going to be surrounded by people who love us and care and shared our grief, and that makes a huge difference."

Husband-Thompson and her children were at the KSC shuttle runway the day Columbia and its crew — which also included pilot Willie McCool and mission specialists Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon of Israel — were lost during an ill-fated atmospheric re-entry.

Serious wing damage that went undetected during a 16-day science mission led to the shuttle's disintegration over Texas and Louisiana 16 minutes before a planned landing at the Florida runway.

Husband-Thompson and her kids were beaming in a photo taken in front of a countdown clock at the landing strip 11 minutes and 21 seconds before the scheduled touchdown. She believed her husband, their dad, was almost home.

What followed was a devastating emotional blow. The fate of the crew became apparent and she felt a shocking, heart-pounding numbness.

"I mean, this is not something that's ever going to be gone. We are forever changed by this, and everybody has to find their own way in life on their grief journey," Husband-Thompson said.

"You know, all of us (the Columbia families) have sought to not let this define the rest of our lives but maybe refine who we are and absolutely honor our family member."

Husband-Thomas will be the keynote speaker at a memorial ceremony today at the Astronaut Memorial "Space Mirror" at the KSC Visitor Complex. Griffin will be there along with former NASA astronaut Eileen Collins and a host of other senior NASA leaders.

It won't be the first time Husband-Thompson has been back. She came to both the STS-121 launch and landing back in July 2006. The mission was commanded by Steve Lindsey, who served as the family's "casualty assistance officer" after the accident and has since become the agency's chief astronaut.

"Landing was extremely painful. I did not even get off the bus to the landing strip before I was crying very hard," she said.

"Laura and I just sat there for a long time after the shuttle landed and just had to take it all in. It just looked so easy, and I know it's not," she said.

"But it was just very hard to watch and wonder why it couldn't have gone that way with Columbia. But it didn't."

Husband-Thompson came back last October, too, to see family friend Scott Parazynski — who ushered at her wedding along with Lindsey — launch aboard shuttle Discovery.

She and the man who would soon become her spouse — Bill Thompson — sat on a bench in front of the Space Mirror memorial and she cried for about a half-hour. Thompson held her the whole time.

"It was glorious because I was anonymous," Husband-Thompson said.

"I wasn't in a ceremony. Nobody was looking at me. There were some people looking at the memorial, but they didn't know who I was," she said. "I was thankful I had the time and the place to do that ? where I didn't have a whole bunch of people staring at me."

Husband-Thompson will return to the memorial today. An ordinary mom thrust into extraordinary circumstances, she'll detail her journey during the past five years — a walk through the valley of the shadow of death, one in which she feared no evil because God was with her.

"It's just a true statement about how God has walked us through such phenomenal grief and how there is triumph that can come out of tragedy," she said. "Laura, Matthew and I are all three standing and proving that."

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