Rockford astronaut saddened by Columbia’s loss

Everyone around the world has been touched by the sudden loss of life and technology that flared across the east Texas sky when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry. But no one is more upset than the friends and family of the Columbia crew, including the rest of the NASA astronauts who have lost seven of their own. One of these remaining explorers is Rockford’s Janice Voss, a veteran astronaut who has flown in five shuttle missions from 1993 to 2000, two of which were on the Columbia.

The Rock River Times spoke with her aunt and Rockford resident Shirley Henley over the phone, who explained that Voss and other NASA astronauts were not making personal statements about the Columbia disaster. Henley said Voss wanted to be an astronaut since she was 6 years old. Growing up in Rockford, Voss attended Johnson and Guilford Center grade schools. According to her biography on NASA’s Web site, she was born in South Bend, Ind., “but considers Rockford, Illinois, to be her hometown.” Voss later attended Purdue University until 1975, when she graduated with a B.S. in space science. While at Purdue, she also interned at the NASA Johnson Space Center. She returned to school two years later at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating in 1987 with an M.S. in electrical engineering and a doctorate in aeronautics/astronautics.

She worked at the Orbital Sciences Corporation for the next few years, acting as a liaison between Orbital Sciences and NASA. Then in 1991, she became a full-fledged astronaut. Henley said Voss applied four times before being taken into NASA’s prestigious ranks.

On her third flight, a 1997 mission aboard Columbia, the shuttle was brought back after four days of a planned 16-day trip when one of three fuel cells malfunctioned. According to The New York Times from April 8, 1997, the errant fuel cell produced, “unusual voltage fluctuations,” prompting NASA engineers to advise the Columbia crew to shut it down and return home. The same crew then reflew the mission in July 1997, which marked Voss’ fourth flight.

Regarding the Columbia disaster 11 days ago, Henley echoed what the rest of the world undoubtedly feels, “…it’s just awful, it’s just a terrible thing.” She is certain that Voss knew the entire Columbia crew since they are such a close-knit group.

Henley has witnessed three launches and one landing of the various space shuttles. She said that the landing was not as spectacular as the launches, but vividly recalls sitting only about two blocks away from the landing strip as the immense craft touched down. Ironically, the one landing that Henley saw was a safe touchdown by the Columbia.

In light of the recent catastrophe suffered by the Columbia and its crew, NASA has come under fire regarding its safety measures. But both Henley and Voss want people to know that NASA’s first concern is safety. Henley cited the truncated 1997 flight as a prime example of NASA’s immediate (and usually successful) responses to any potential hazard.

It is too early to tell how the ill-fated Columbia will affect the future of the shuttle program and manned flight in general. But those people who have dedicated their lives to the noble pursuit of space exploration will assuredly carry on. In the meantime, the wounds are still fresh, and the pain is still sharp. Voss told her aunt of Columbia’s demise, “it was a long, rough weekend.”

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