This month marks 15 years since the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart over East Texas. The widow of the Columbia’s commander is sharing how that tragedy turned into a test of faith for her family.
While enduring the loss of a spouse wasn’t easy, Evelyn Husband-Thompson says she has been able to find healing comfort in the years since.
“Something changed so drastically that after February 1st. He (God) promises that he heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. He really has healed my broken heart.”
Husband-Thompson has since remarried and lives in Houston. She and her two children remain hopeful of an eternal future together.
“We all three are very, very, very thankful for the hope of heaven because we know there will be a reunion. We know where Rick is.”
Their family has been rooted in spirituality long before the tragic events of February 1, 2003.
Especially in his adult life, Rick was a student of scripture.
“He had bona fide time with the Lord every morning and sat in a particular chair with a giant cup of coffee, extremely early, and would read scripture and pray and study. This wasn’t something he always did, but I’m so thankful that he reached the point that that’s what he did.”
Sharing this passion with his children came naturally, Evelyn said.
“Rick had a very strong belief in the Lord and led our family amazingly, strongly, and would pray with Lauren and Matthew. So much so that he even made devotional tapes for them when he was in Space. Each day they would watch a little five-minute video that he had prepared for them each morning. And he would read out of their devotional books the Bible verse, a little story, and say a prayer and then just talk to them for a moment.”
Rick was consumed by preparing for the launch of the STS-107 mission, but he made it a priority to record the tapes, Evelyn said.
“So they watched them every day and watched them the morning of the landing. And Rick said in those tapes that he was so proud of them and so grateful to be their dad and couldn’t wait to see them.”
Prior to the launch Rick had been studying the Book of Joshua and had even started to memorize the first chapter.
“He had a little spiral notebook with index cards and he would write the verses down. When he was on the treadmill or if he was just, you know, whatever, he would use those verses to help him memorize and prompt him.”
The night before the launch on January 16, 2003, the families of the crew gathered for an evening together. Evelyn remembers her husband wanting to pray for the upcoming mission.
“Rick was very careful and great about not proselytizing the crew. Especially as the commander, he was very sensitive. You know, they all came from different belief systems and he respected that. But he lived his faith out and so (he) was not demonstrative about it. He just walked it.”
An intimate setting, this would be the last time the families and crew members would see each other.
“Rick asked the crew if it was okay if he prayed. And he was very sincere and asking that. He didn’t want to be offensive at all,” Evelyn said.
From memory, he led a reflection about one of his favorite verses from his recent studies, Joshua 1:6-9.
6 Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.
7 “Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left,that you may be successful wherever you go. 8 Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. 9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
“He just shared with them that this verse had a lot of meaning with him and that he knew that the Lord would be with them on their launch and during their mission. In the passage it talks about the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
About a month after the accident, Evelyn says she struggled with grief.
“I remember one night just praying and looking up at the stars and just asking the Lord to help me. I just felt so lost and so broken over Rick’s death and the Lord assured me in a way that I never had happened before. He says, ‘Evelyn I am with you right now and I am with Rick right now. Nothing has changed. Rick has changed locations. He’s here with me in heaven. But we’re all three still together. I’m still with him. I’m still with you.'”
Then more reminders of the scripture started showing up, despite her avoiding television and media coverage.
“I broke that little rule and turned it (the TV) on for just a bit. And it was on C-SPAN. I turned it on just at the moment that the chaplain of the House of Representatives is reading reading Joshua 1:6-9 to the House and saying that it was a favorite bible verse of Commander Husband,” Evelyn said.
“I learned too that that brother Fred (Raney), when they found different remains and especially with Rick’s, that he said Joshua 1:6-9 at that very poignant moment when they found him. And it’s just hugely meaningful to me.”
These reminders triggered a deep reflection on the meaning of the sacred text.
“God is a very big God. And no question has used those words so many times. And it’s amazing to me how living scripture is that it could apply to such a period of time so long ago but nothing’s changed. The Lord is with us wherever we go. So it’s just as strong of a truth now as it was when when Joshua wrote those words and all through the times that they’ve been said since they’re just extremely powerful.”
Husband-Thompson says that scripture continues to be a powerful beacon for the families of the crew. It has even been adopted by the Sabine County Columbia Memorial Committee, which recites it at meetings and memorials.
“Their support meant and continues to mean so much to all of the Columbia families, to me, to the NASA community. It’s overwhelming to even grasp the magnitude of the work and the efforts that were made. The sleepless nights and the tireless effort to take care of and pray for and console us when they were walking through such an incredible tragedy that landed on their doorstep, literally.”
The verses are even etched into a large stone outside the entrance to the Patricia Huffman Smith NASA Museum in Hemphill.
“They’ve been words that have been a huge comfort to me and to my children as well. So they they’re very meaningful and I just think they’re extremely appropriate for the museum and for the Hemphill community.”
Of the thousands of volunteers who assisted in the 2003 search and recovery effort, Belinda Gay and Marsha Cooper have become close friends of the Husband family.
“It was such an amazing and beautiful connection the first time I met them and we realized how strong we all were in our belief of Jesus. It just united us immediately as sisters in Christ, which is the most powerful of all. And we all have the hope of heaven and so we were all working from the same page of knowing that even though this was a profound tragedy, there was hope in the midst of that.”
As the director of the ‘Remembering Columbia’ Museum, Gay now works to preserve the legacy of the Columbia crew by educating school children about the mission. This effort is personal, as she was a key figure in organizing the efforts of local volunteers in 2003.
“God put that project on us, to return them home, to get them back to their families, and to see it through. To finish the project with them. And I don’t know why he chose us.”
Husband-Thompson said she believes divine intervention played some role in the tragedy unfolding in East Texas.
“It happened in a community that’s very small and very strong in very faith-based. And it happened in a community that was able to show the world what it looks like to be caught completely off guard in an overwhelming situation that no one humanly could manage or handle. And that’s exactly what this community did.”
Honoring the fallen astronauts and inspiring future generations continues to be a priority for Sabine County. Each year the community holds a memorial service on the anniversary, inviting guest speakers, elected officials and the astronauts’ families.
“They mean that when they say that the STS-107 mission became their mission,” Husband said. “They embraced the opportunity to serve the Lord, to shine for him and to do the best work they’ve ever done in their lives.”
While returning to Hemphill is still difficult for Husband-Thompson, she says there’s an important lesson to be learned.
“Is this still a tough day? It’s a very tough day. Is it still something that I have a lot of sorrow? Absolutely. But you can have sorrow and yet have a peace and a joy because of the promises that the Bible teaches. I don’t know how that works but I’m very grateful.”
The Husband family’s journey of faith is also detailed in the 2004 book ‘High Calling,’ penned by Husband-Thompson and Donna Vaniere.