He had wanted to be an astronaut his entire life. Astronaut Rick Husband achieved that dream and more in his short, tragic life.
Husband was born in Amarillo in 1957. As he grew up, he saw the triumphs of the early American space program, inspiring him to become an astronaut himself. He graduated from Amarillo High School in 1975 and attended Texas Tech University in Lubbock.
After graduating college with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1980, he was earned a commission as a lieutenant in the U. S. Air Force. He entered the pilot training program as a first step to becoming an astronaut. He graduated from his initial pilot training in Oklahoma in 1981 and was later trained on the F-4 fighter. By 1985, the air force had made him an instructor for other pilots training on the F-4. Two years later, he became a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California, flying the F-4 and F-15.
The air force later assigned him to a pilot exchange program with the Royal Air Force. He would end up flying more than 40 different types of aircraft during his career. He continued his education at the same time, earning a masters degree in mechanical engineering for California State University at Fresno in 1990.
He tried several times to become an astronaut, but NASA turned him down three times. Husband persisted and was accepted into the astronaut program in 1994. He worked on studies of future manned Moon and Mars missions as well as training for a future space shuttle mission.
On May 27, 1999, he piloted the shuttle Discovery into orbit and became the first astronaut to dock with the newly completed International Space Station. He traveled more than 4 million miles through 153 orbits on this mission.
While proud of his achievements, Husband was also devoted to his wife and children. He was also a man of faith. He spoke to several churches about his experiences as an astronaut but devoted most of his homilies to the importance of God in his life.
On January 16, 2003, now an air force colonel, Husband commanded the shuttle Columbia as it reached orbit on a scientific research mission. The mission was successful and otherwise uneventful as the shuttle prepared to land on February 1.
However, when the shuttle had initially taken off, debris from the external fuel tank had broken off and struck the protective tiles on the shuttle’s wing. The crew was unaware of the damage to Columbia’s protective heat shield. As the craft descended into the upper atmosphere, temperatures on the shuttle’s hull exceeded 3,000 degrees. Without the critical protection to protect the craft from the intense forces it would experience during re-entry, the shuttle could not safely reach the surface. The shuttle began to disintegrate.
Eventually, the crew compartment lost pressurization and the astronauts all lost consciousness within seconds. The investigation that followed never determined how much the crew knew of the impending disaster.
Rick Husband and his six crewmates died on that terrible morning in 2003.
The world mourned the loss of the astronauts. Astronomers named a series of newly discovered asteroids after each of the crew members. Amarillo renamed its local airport after Husband in honor of its fallen son.
For the remainder of the shuttle program, new safety precautions were enacted to protect future shuttle missions. These precautions included inspections of the heat shield once the space shuttles settled into orbit. The shuttle program ended in 2011.
Rick Husband had reached the stars as he had always dreamed. One of many great American explorers, he died a hero.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.