Columbia tragedy evokes prayers, determination to persevere in Central Florida

February 4, 2003

The Central Florida family waited, as usual, for a sonic boom heralding the reentering space shuttle, but the telltale sound never came.

'That's when we knew something was wrong,' said Catherine Kohn, a contractor for the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida, who saw the news minutes later on television: the space shuttle Columbia was lost over Texas the morning of February 1.

Since then, the Kohns and thousands of other Central Floridians have been praying for the seven dead astronauts, their families and loved ones.

Nowhere is the expression of faith more evident than on Florida's 'Space Coast,' which stretches from just south of Daytona Beach--on the 'Speed Coast'--to just north of the wealthy retirement community of Vero Beach.

'One-third to one-half of our parishioners are either employed at the Kennedy Space Center or are retired from Kennedy,' said Pam Woolard, a member of St. Luke's in Merritt Island. The space center is a close neighbor on the island, which juts out from mainland Florida across a lagoon called the Banana River.

Services at St. Luke's and other Space Coast churches were especially poignant Sunday, February 2.

'This is mostly a private time for people around here,' Woolard said. 'We're all pretty down, but we have a sense of togetherness that gives us comfort.'

'We said special prayers on Sunday,' she said. 'We are definitely an integral part of the Kennedy Space Center community.'

Built on space travel

That community mourns its fallen heroes, but also has learned to live with the risk inherent in manned space flight. Drive U.S. 1 past signs for Astronaut High School, the ICBM copy shop, the Best Western Space Shuttle Inn and the Moon Hut restaurant on Astronaut Boulevard, and you quickly appreciate how much this is a region built on the aerospace industry.

Many of the old timers remember January 27, 1967, when preparations for the first manned Apollo mission ended with fire gutting the command module, killing three astronauts--Virgil L. Grissom, Roger B. Chaffee, and Edward H. White.

The Rev. Richard Pobjecky, rector of St. Gabriel's in Titusville, a few miles from Kennedy, remembers the Challenger disaster, January 28, 1986. The orbiter Challenger and its crew of seven were lost when the vehicle exploded in flight about 74 seconds after liftoff. Killed in the explosion were NASA career astronauts Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ronald E. McNair, Judith A. Resnik, Ellison S. Ontzuka, Gregory B. Jarvis, and S. Christa Corrigan McAuliffe, who was to have been the first teacher in space.

'We were watching when the Challenger exploded right over there,' Pobjecky said, pointing toward the eastern sky from St. Gabriel's parking lot.

He had the terrible obligation of riding with the Jarvis family to the funeral of Greg Jarvis, a St. Gabriel's parishioner. Pobjecky also had the honor of blessing the Apollo/Challenger Memorial, dedicated Flag Day, June 14, 1986, in Titusville.

'After the Challenger, we knew there was a chance of losing another shuttle,' he said.

Determination to improve

The astronauts themselves know, too: Just as with conventional aircraft testing, there is a calculated risk of fatal results. Among those closest to the space program, disaster has prompted a determination to improve the program.

'Being a young engineer and very involved in shuttle systems since 1996, I was hurt Saturday morning,' Jimmy Cornejo told Florida Today, the Space Coast's daily newspaper. 'I felt a sense of pain that rapidly intensified my goals and objectives to keep working on this program and continue to fly safe.'

Meantime, sermons this week will continue to elaborate on the theme of eternal peace in spite of earthly tribulations, Central Florida clergy said.

'It is important to stress the almost innate adventurous spirit that God has implanted in humankind that motivates the desire to explore the far reaches of the universe,' said the Rev. Ralston Nembhard, rector of St. John the Baptist in Orlando. 'The risks are enormous but the missions should go on. The tragedy does not diminish God's love for us, nor the fact that he has given us dominion over the creation. While space explorations must and will go on, they must be conducted in a spirit of humility. It is only in this way that good results are guaranteed.'

The Rev. Beverly Barge, a retired Central Florida priest, echoed the sentiment by offering a quotation from Robert Browning: 'Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp/or what's a heaven for?'

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