City seeks answers from science, faith

Houston: In this community, where NASA and churches are equally important, the space shuttle's disaster is mourned as a local tragedy.

The Loss Of Columbia

February 03, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HOUSTON - While one investigation into the disintegration of space shuttle Columbia continued yesterday inside the Johnson Space Center, a separate reckoning began outside it.

By the thousands, parishioners flocked to the mega-churches that blanket the Houston area, seeking explanations for the loss of seven astronauts they considered their neighbors, and for the setback to a cause they consider their calling.

In vast halls with tall jagged spires as ubiquitous as oil derricks, they sang, cried and prayed as their ministers told them that the shuttle's demise was a confirmation of their faith.

"The mission of Columbia STS-107 may not have finished, but [the astronauts] have finished their mission," the Rev. Steve Riggle told more than 1,000 congregants at Grace Community Church, the evangelist church in Clear Lake near the space center where two of the astronauts were members.

Rarely has the double identity of Houston been on as clear display as it is now. The city is a capital of science, where 16,500 people are employed in connection with the nation's quest to explore outer space, and it is a stronghold of faith, a place where 3,000-person church turnouts are common and where Bible groups are as prevalent as softball teams.

In other eras and for other people, science and religion have been at odds. In Houston, by all appearances, they are fully reconciled. After all, locals say, both endeavors entail contemplating the firmament. At least one local church has a space shuttle as the centerpiece in its stained glass window.

Now, residents say, the double identity offers strength, two avenues for their grief. While they await hard answers from their scientists, they can seek solace from their church.

Science and religion "kind of help each other, feed off each other," said NASA payload officer Greg Humble, 31, as he left Gloria Dei, a Lutheran church across the street from the space center, where about 800 had gathered.

Humble helped prepare the shuttle for the experiments the astronauts conducted on board and helped train them before the mission. He was about to go back on duty in the control room Saturday when the shuttle vanished.

"They were fantastic people. They were the nicest crew I ever dealt with," he said. "This crew had something extra special about it. Every time I had a meeting with them they were great. They lit up the room."

Local pride

On the southeastern edge of Houston, which NASA calls home, the refrain is the same: The astronauts were like family, and their loss is like that of a son or daughter. Residents struggle to explain why these seven - and all the astronauts who preceded them - hold such a rarefied place in the community, one that even a sports hero would envy.

Part of it, to be sure, is local pride. The oil industry may employ more people in Houston, but the space center is the city's crown jewel. You can get your teeth fixed at Space Center Orthodontics, go to the IHOP at Challenger Plaza, or eat at a McDonald's festooned with a giant inflatable astronaut.

But it's more than that, locals say. The community spread out in bungalows on the low, palm-tree shaded plain around the space center feels the loss of astronauts so acutely, they say, because it is uniquely close-knit, a place where almost everyone has moved from somewhere else and, as a result, turns to strangers for company.

"This place was built out of nothing," said Barbara Brehmer, a retired schoolteacher. "We regard everyone else as our neighbors, as family."

In this world, the astronauts training at the space center are like anyone else: "They're real people, don't think they're better than anyone else, not putting on airs," said Brehmer. They send their kids to local schools, attend the local churches. Virginia Spiers of Clear Lake has one astronaut in her quilt guild.

But, of course, they are not like anyone else. No matter how self-effacing they are, the astronauts acquire a stardom like no other, founded on their combination of smarts, fitness and, most importantly, the magical sheen that comes from traveling beyond the bounds of Earth.

"For a lot of people, the space program is about hope," said Charlotte Burgess, Brehmer's 31-year-old daughter. "NASA is about the world being unified. In space, all the stupid [stuff] we fight about doesn't matter."

With such fierce local possessiveness of the astronauts, the tragedy here is felt as an entirely local event. It doesn't matter if two of the lost astronauts were born outside the United States or that the shuttle had circled the planet in the two hours before its demise.

"You know how 9/11 was New York's thing, how that was personal for them? Well, this is personal for us," said Burgess, a biotechnology graduate student.

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