Huntsville Pauses to Remember Shuttle Astronauts

Space Shuttle Columbia Crew (AP Photo)
Space Shuttle Columbia Crew (AP Photo)

Alabama's space city paused Wednesday to honor the seven astronauts killed aboard the Columbia as NASA workers joined Governor Riley and others in a somber tribute. With images of the shuttle crew flashing on a large screen in the city's concert hall, a choir sang gospel songs and speakers recalled the sacrifices of the crew.

Riley said the loss extends to Huntsville, where some 7200 work for NASA or its contractors. America's first rockets were developed in Huntsville, and people danced in the city's streets 45 years ago when the first US rocket reached space.

Nearly two-thousand people attended the service, held in the same auditorium where a memorial was held after the Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff in 1986.

Meanwhile, the head of the Space Flight Center says engineers "got comfortable" with small amounts of foam insulation coming off the shuttle's external tank -- and they never thought the problem could lead to disaster, as investigators believe may have happened with Columbia.

In his first interview since the accident, Director Art Stephenson said engineers at the Huntsville facility knew small pieces of foam were flying off the tank and damaging the shuttle's heat-shielding tiles. He said they developed a way to fix part of the problem, but NASA did NOT believe the polyurethane insulation was dense enough to cause major damage and didn't concentrate on eliminating the loss of the rigid, rust-colored insulation during launch.

Video cameras captured images of foam peeling off the external tank and striking the Columbia during liftoff on January 16th. The cause of the accident has yet to be determined, but NASA is assuming the foam damaged heat-resistant tiles, causing the shuttle to burn up during re-entry on Saturday.