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|| News Item: Posted 2003-02-06

'This was bad, real bad.'
Member Scott Audette shares the details of his emotional response to the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

By Scott Audette

Photo by Scott Audette / AP

Photo by Scott Audette / AP
Last night at dinner I cried. It came so suddenly it took me by surprise. I was just having dinner with my wife Jennifer and my one month old son Victor. I was surrounded by the people who mean so much to me. The TV played in the background, news reports rehashing the details of the last 36 hours.

And I cried. I cried for every member of the astronauts families, I cried because I, unlike the Columbia 7, got to return home to my family from the Kennedy Space Center.

My day started early on Saturday. NASA policies now require most of the media to take a bus into the space center. So, at 3 am I kissed my family goodbye and started the hour and a half drive to the Cape. I lit up a fine cigar and made my way there. I left early to be at NASA's badging station when it opened at 5 a.m. I rode the bus alone to the media site. It was a cool morning with a slight breeze, very serene.

My assignment for the morning was to cover Columbia as she approached on runway 33, which is a south approach from the roof of the vehicle assembly building. It's an awesome place to see a landing. The orbiter roars by you making some great photos, then touches down on the runway just off in the distance.

NASA had predicted a 95% chance of good weather for a landing, which almost never happens. As we waited for NASA to call for the deorbit burn, some ground fog rolled in, causing some concern. But this is Florida, and fog almost always burns off early.

So, they make the call to go for it, and we head to the roof. Today is like every other landing. Myself and the other photographers rib each other for the next 30 minutes to pass the time because today will be like any other day: soon we will hear the twin sonic booms and two minutes later the shuttle will roar past us.

We get excited as we see the fog burning off. But around 9 a.m., it started to look bad again. Clouds in what was once empty sky begin to roll in... the fog begins to reappear.

It gets ugly. We comment among ourselves that it looks bad. Worse than any weather we have seen for any landing. And this is a group of experts. These guys have to been to more launches and landings than I ever will. Red Huber, from the Orlando Sentinel, Mike Brown from Florida Today, Karl Ronstrum, from Reuters, these guys live for this stuff, we all do.

We all agree that had NASA known the weather would turn like this, they wouldn't have ever come on this rev. But they are coming, so we get ready. There is no turning around now. So, we all get back to our positions and wait.

Photo by Scott Audette / AP

Photo by Scott Audette / AP
There are no TVs on the roof, and cellphones and pagers aren't allowed, only one handheld radio for us to hear the commentary from announcers at KSC. We hear them call for 3 minutes across the radio, we all perk up, loosen our tripods and start scanning the sky. The booms are coming, we know it, they always do. Two minutes, no booms. We all start to stir. Where are they? They should have already happened; something's not right. We quickly surmise that maybe they pulled a fast one...told us they were coming to KSC but went to California. Security was high with Ilan Ramon on board and nothing would surprise us. Then we hit zero and the words came across the radio: "we have lost contact with Columbia.'' My heart sank. We knew it was over. This was bad, real bad.

But maybe they were ok... our only contact to the outside world was this radio and they weren't saying anything.

My heart hurt, my eyes misty. But this is the moment my autopilot kicked in. I had a job to do. I had to make pictures. There were a handful of employees on the roof, and they were as dazed as us. We shot their pictures.

But still no word.

Then we saw it. The astronaut van used to ferry the astronauts from the shuttle to crew headquarters was leaving with a police escort and no shuttle on the runway.

We packed up our stuff and headed for the elevators. The pictures are not very dynamic: Except for the photo of the van, it's all we have and the world is waiting.

By the time we get to the bottom floor, it becomes painfully obvious it's a disaster. The employees are consoling each other. This confirms our worst fears. I make a quick frame of this, feeling so guilty that I was intruding on these people in their moment of grief. I know I have to do it. There are 3 of us -- at the moment -- covering this landing for AP, and I have to make sure I have something to contribute.

Our quick ride back to the press site was filled with disbelief. We knew it would happen. It was inevitable. But we always expected it to be right at landing not on deorbit burn. The shuttle is a flying brick: The most dangerous part of landing was supposed to be touchdown.

But it wasn't today.

I rushed out of the van and headed to our trailer. My friend and mentor AP staffer Peter Cosgrove was handling the phones and trying to get out our pictures. I jumped in and never looked up. We turned off the volume on the TV and we started to edit. We had our stuff to look at, pool stuff. The phone calls were pouring in...New York, Miami, Washington... cell phones... ringing non-stop.

Coverage plans were forming on the fly... additional help was on the way. We sent Terry Renna to cover us at the press office while we edited.

I've got tell you, it's all a blur the rest of the day. I have never filed so many pictures. I was overwhelmed. I also was concerned for Pete. This wasn't Pete's first shuttle disaster. He was there for Challenger, so was Terry. But they held it together, their strength became my strength. We made our way through the day until there were no more pictures to look at. Our team made it through. Staffer Chris O'Meara and freelancer Paul Kizzle were there within hours of the event. And the five of us put on our blinders and worked straight through.

Photo by Scott Audette / AP

Photo by Scott Audette / AP
But by early evening it was over. The story wasn't in Florida anymore. Sure there would be church services on Sunday and memorials to visit, but the focus was elsewhere. An editor from Washington arrived Saturday evening to take over the show. We made our plans for the next day. He called us all together and asked us to reflect on the morning. But I think we were all numb.

Numb the next morning, numb the next afternoon. Then he sent most of us home. Things had quieted down.

I arrived home early in the afternoon and took a nap immediately. But when I got up, I wanted to the watch the news... my wife protested a little, she had been bombarded for the last 36 hours with images of destruction and grieving. But I hadn't, I hadn't had the opportunity to just sit back and reflect. And so she gave in and we began our dinner.

We talked about the day, we talked about our son. Then it happened. Like a tidal wave, the feelings of overwhelming grief took over me. And I cried. I had to. My wife's eyes filled with tears as she reassured me it was ok for me to let go.

I didn't know the Columbia 7. But I know the people who have devoted their entire lives to getting these astronauts into space. And they hurt and I hurt with them. I hurt for the little boy inside me who wanted be an astronaut growing up.

I called one of my closest friends, Matt York, on Sunday night. He was in Houston, covering Johnson Space Center for AP. He helped me work through my thoughts and anger for what has happpened, but I also had to tell him something exciting, the one spark of life in my weekend...

I kissed my son tonight after dinner. And he looked at me and smiled for the first time... and I cried.

Related Links:
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