Columbia astronauts reunite after 25 years

January 16, 2011 4:52:19 PM PST
There was a rare reunion this weekend for astronauts who flew on the mission right before the Challenger shuttle disaster 25 years ago. They were at the capitol to reflect on past years and look to the future. The reunion started with a moment of silence for the crew of the Space Center Challenger and a prayer for the Tucson tragedy. It's the first time they've been in the same room in 25 years.

Twenty-five years following their space flight aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, the seven men who circled the earth together came together for the first time since 1986.

It's as if they never skipped a beat; old buddies exchanging jokes, laughing, calling each other by nickname and sharing memories, the high points and the low points. Just ten days after their successful landing, they witnessed the Challenger explode and their friends perish.

"I went back in the little bathroom and I got down on my knees and I said, 'Why?'" said Senator Bill Nelson, Columbia's payload specialist.

Each took part in the investigation into what happened with Challenger.

"One of the big questions we had to answer, of course, was, did we put it together, the Challenger vehicle. Did we put it together incorrectly and that was the cause of the accident?" wondered flight commander Robert Gibson.

The investigation found the problem was the cold weather and its effect on the ship's booster rockets. Now looking back, the men say accidents with the Challenger, and their own ship, Columbia, which exploded on re-entry in 2003, illustrate the need for further exploration.

At a time when NASA's future is uncertain, their quarter-century reunion couldn't be more appropriate.

"This week of commemoration will remind us why we do what we do and make us stronger in our dedication to putting together a robust exploration program that the president has laid out for us," said Columbia pilot and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

In their six days together, the seven men circled the earth 98 times and traveled 2.5 million miles. But what they want people to remember about their crew is they were, and to this day, remain the youngest crew who flew together in space. At the time, all of them were younger than 40.