LDS astronaut reflects on space shuttle tragedy

In the days and weeks since the U.S. space shuttle Columbia broke apart after re-entering the earth's atmosphere Feb. 1 — leaving all seven crew members dead — LDS former astronaut Rick Searfoss has reflected on his own three space missions, the lives of his lost colleagues and the gospel.

After learning of the tragedy on CNN from his California home, Brother Searfoss felt unspeakable loneliness; such a limited number of people share the unique experience of traveling through space that few could relate to his emotions.

He remembered his own time in space. He served as pilot aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1993 and aboard space shuttle Atlantis in 1996. In 1998, as Columbia's commander, he led a crew on a mission very similar to Columbia's final voyage.

He worried for his NASA family and future space missions, although he is sure there will be many more.

He traveled to Houston, Texas, for the memorials, conducted press interviews, bore his testimony, attended the temple and comforted friends.

Through it all, he saw a story unfold that was deeper and broader than just the tragic loss of the shuttle and crew.

"There is a human story here about the faith of the families," he said. "It is not up to us to know the details of God's ways or how He works, but I do know this: In spite of this terrible tragedy, the fact that men and women, people of faith, were so instrumental in making this mission go . . . will have a huge influence on people in the long run for good."

Brother Searfoss of the Bear Valley Ward, Bakersfield California East Stake, said loss is never easy, but it can be faith promoting.

"While the entire nation and the world has deeply felt this tragedy, within the progressively smaller and smaller circles of people with closer and closer relationships to these amazing people, their loss takes on a much more direct and painful meaning," he said during one memorial service. "Yet at the same time the memories are richer and the influence for good in the lives of those they touched greater."

He and his wife, Julie, said traveling to Houston to cry with the families helped start their healing process.

Sister Searfoss said her worst fears were realized with the disaster. "It wasn't a feeling of relief that it wasn't us," she said. "It was a feeling of, it could have been us. It could still be any one of us."

She said her testimony of Christ brings her great comfort now, just as it did during her husband's three missions. She prayed then that if something had to happen that he be able to complete the work he set out to do. "My prayer was always, 'If something bad has to happen, let it be at the end of the mission,' " she recalled.

At a memorial for Rick Husband and Michael Anderson — both religious men, Sister Searfoss knew their families felt the same way. She heard their testimonies of Christ.

"The families are in His hands," she said. "They are leaning on the Lord and He is helping them. It is wonderful to know that you don't have to be LDS to receive comfort. He is there for everyone."

Brother Searfoss, now a professional speaker and leadership consultant, said before his last mission, he shared scriptures with his crew.

Working at NASA is like working with people in the Church, he said. They become like brothers and sisters to you. "Your values come out," he said. "You need to rely on the Lord and have faith, not just for safety, but for doing your job up there."

After the disaster, he recalled a moment he shared with his family only through video tape. The tape recorded his family's response to his return from his final 15-day space mission. His three daughters jumped up and down as the shuttle came into view. "Daddy's home, Daddy's home!" the youngest shouted.

"When the shuttles are flying again there will never again be the same buoyant or relaxed atmosphere among family members," Brother Searfoss lamented. "Each mission will be a whole mission of 'nail biters' for the families. Families used to worry for a few minutes during take off. Now it will be days.

"It is sobering," he added. "It is a dangerous business. It reaches up and slaps us from time to time. . . . It is never easy, but it can be faith promoting as everyone presses forward."

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