Just 16 minutes from home, the space shuttle Columbia crew instead landed in the national and local public consciousness. Today marks the sixth anniversary of a space program tragedy that struck close to home.
The details remain a painful memory. Shortly after passing over the High Plains of Texas, the shuttle disintegrated shortly before it was scheduled to land at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. All seven astronauts aboard the shuttle were killed, including Commander Rick Husband, a 1980 Texas Tech graduate, and pilot Willie McCool, a 1979 Coronado High School graduate.
"Lubbock has been deeply touched by the tragic loss of the seven brave astronauts on the space shuttle Columbia," Marc McDougal, mayor of Lubbock at the time, said in a statement. "Shuttle Commander Rick Husband was a Texas Tech University graduate and pilot Willie McCool was a graduate of Lubbock Coronado High School. They left footprints in Lubbock and have friends and family here."
The two had carried mementoes of their local ties into space. McCool took a Coronado spirit towel in honor of his high school, and Husband took with him a CD of the Tech choir.
"We live in an age of heroes. We need no reminder of that," said U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon. "But what we sometimes forget is that we still have heroes who are risking their lives exploring the dangerous frontiers of space. The seven astronauts who perished today are heroes who gave their lives serving our nation and mankind."
Also killed were crew members Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon, Israel's first pilot.
Columbia was the oldest shuttle in NASA's fleet, flying into orbit for the first time in 1981. The 2003 trip marked its 28th trip. According to published reports, the shuttle had undergone more than 50 modifications and was last refurbished in 1999.
The shuttle began its 16-day mission as the most heavily guarded space shot in NASA history, according to an Associated Press story. The presence of an Israeli astronaut who had once bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor caused the U.S. to ratchet up security measures.
The crew conducted more than 80 experiments from around the world for a stand-alone science mission, meaning there would be no activities such as spacewalks, docking with space stations or robot arm operations.
The start of the mission STS-107 was uneventful in terms of external threats, but NASA officials feared the craft's left wing was damaged during liftoff, according to the AP.
Columbia's liftoff would prove to be a stark contrast to the chain of events that occurred during the shuttle's final ill-fated moments.
According to a NASA report issued in December, a series of loud alarms sounded, prompting McCool to work feverishly to correct the ship as it tumbled out of control. Sadly, the ship began to break apart moments after passing over the South Plains.
An independent commission was appointed to investigate the space program's third high-profile tragedy. Space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff in 1986, and an Apollo spacecraft fire killed three in 1967.
The search for the cause began immediately with a focus on possible damage to the shuttle's protective thermal tiles on the left wing from a flying piece of debris during the liftoff. According to multiple news accounts, the tragedy occurred 39 miles above Earth. According to published reports, television footage showed a bright light followed by white smoke plumes streaking diagonally across the sky. Debris appeared to break off into separate balls of light as it continued downward.
"The Columbia is lost," President Bush said shortly after calling the astronauts' families to console them. "The crew of the shuttle did no return safely to Earth, but we can pray they are safely home."
The Lubbock and Tech communities mourned the loss of McCool and Husband. McCool was an accomplished track athlete and swimmer during his days at Coronado and was a member of the high school band. In 2003, the school renamed its track in his honor. He was a U.S. Navy commander and graduate of the Naval Academy.
"He was pretty accomplished, high up in class academically," Blake Mitchell, who graduated from Coronado two years after McCool, told the A-J. "He never bragged. He was just a regular guy."
Likewise with Husband, an Amarillo native who graduated from Tech with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and entered the Air Force. He received his pilot's license at age 17 and participated in an exchange pilot program with the Royal Air Force in England when he was accepted into the NASA training program.
Former U.S. Rep. Larry Combest, R-Lubbock, told The A-J that the tragedy claimed two pioneers who once called Lubbock home.
"We owe these brave men much appreciation for their dedicated efforts, despite the risks, to help expand our knowledge of our world," he said.
Ultimately, NASA's report in December indicated a hole in the craft's wing was caused by a piece of foam insulation that broke off the fuel tank and slammed into it at launch, according to an AP story. The NASA team that compiled the report recommended 30 changes aimed at improving the safety of astronauts involved in future missions.
The memories and accomplishments of both McCool and Husband have been preserved in their respective cities. In addition to the renaming of the track, a statue of McCool, donated by the class of 1979, is in the CHS library.
"We want all the students who didn't know who he was to ... realize they, too, can have dreams," Coronado secretary Charlotte Godlove told the A-J.
Additionally, a memorial area, featuring a McCool statue, was dedicated in Huneke Park in Lubbock. In Amarillo, the city renamed its airport Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport in 2003.