The ground-track of STS-107 took it just slightly south of the DFW area. It offered up a great chance to view the re-entry from our location and to top things off the weather was near perfect. Normally I would have been up early to watch the re-entry but it was a very busy time of year for me at work, I was tired and I’d seen several of these events before so I opted to sleep in. That decision could be looked at as a good choice or a bad choice depending on your point of view I guess.
We received a phone call from a friend who lives in Houston at 8:30 a.m. and we immediately turned on the TV when he told us what was unfolding with the shuttle. We both didn’t want to believe it but the realization that Columbia was lost and the crew were dead were almost immediate. WFAA-TV Channel 8 locally here in the Dallas/Fort Worth area had carried the event live and were rerunning the breakup footage over and over. It was sickening to watch. Many people across north central and eastern texas including my wife hard the sonic boom that normally is reserved for orbiter hounds in Florida.
Less than a year earlier on February 28, 2002 my wife and I made a last minute decision to go view a shuttle launch. If successful it would be our second launch to view in person. We had witnessed Space Shuttle Atlantis launch on STS-101 in May of 2000 and we were excited and hoping that the weather wouldn’t spoil the fun for this launch.
We caught one of the last flights out of DFW and arrived in Orlando at around midnight. Barring any weather delays the shuttle was to launch that next morning. So we rented a car and drove east to Titusville to view the launch. All of the hotels were booked solid so we picked up coffee and donuts, found a nice spot to park along the Banana River and waited for the launch.
A few hours later at 6:22 a.m. we watched as Columbia lifted off and mission STS-109 began. Columbia’s job was to service the Hubble Space Telescope. The mission was a complete success. It was the third HST servicing mission. The launch was especially interesting because the vehicle plowed through a low cloud bank about 10 to 15 seconds into the launch, and it lit up the whole sky. Looking very similar to a mushroom cloud, it was truly a beautiful launch. As we watched the launch that morning we could never have dreamed that what we were seeing was the beginning of the orbiter’s last successful mission.
What happened on the morning of February 1, 2003 was a tragedy for the family members of the astronauts, the space program and America. The shuttle astronauts are true heroes. The crew of STS-107 had the right stuff.