The day the shuttle Columbia was lost, along with the seven astronauts inside it, Jerry Ross was standing at the end of the runway, waiting for the spacecraft to touch down.
"They told us that Houston had lost communication with the crew, with the orbiter," Ross, a retired astronaut who flew on seven space shuttle mission, told SPACE.com in a video interview today (Feb. 1), the 10th anniversary of the accident.
"I didn't think that was such a big deal because that could have happened for lots of different reasons," Ross said. "Then they said just shortly after that they'd also lost telemetry. I thought, well, that's also possible. If you lose comm, you probably lose telemetry. But that was also followed shortly by, they'd lost tracking. And I knew exactly what that meant."
Ross, who was an astronaut office branch chief at the time, was at Florida's Kennedy Space Center, where Columbia was due to land after a 16-day mission. Damage to its wing during launch, however, caused the orbiter to be destroyed as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere. [Video: Jerry Ross Remembers]
"I stepped outside, said a quiet prayer for my friends, and then called the astronauts that were escorting the crew's families, over at midfield on the runway, and asked that they get the families back to crew quarters as expeditiously as possible, that we'd probably lost the crew and lost the vehicle," Ross recalled. "I called back to crew quarters ... and asked them to help secure the facilities, to get security there, to clean up the crew conference room because we'd be bringing the families back there, to get some food and drinks for them, turn off the TVs."
After a short time, Ross and Bob Cabana, director of Flight Crew Operations at the time, went in to tell the families that their loved ones had likely not survived.
"I spent the next several hours helping to comfort them, helping to collect all their baggage from hotel rooms, arranging for airplanes to fly them back to Houston," Ross said. "After they had headed home, I wanted to be on one of those airplanes so I could go back to my family."
Instead, Ross went with a rapid response team to Louisiana, and then Texas, to help develop the plan to recover all the debris from the shuttle that had reached the ground.
"Anything that was crew-related stuff came directly to me before it was passed on to the Kennedy Space Center," Ross said. "So I saw that debris and knew it was my friends who had had it strapped to their leg, or wore it. Very tough to see the condition that all the hardware was in."
Ross would spend the next three months there, working on the recovery effort.
Ultimately, he said that NASA did the best it could after the Columbia accident to understand the cause and correct its course. But the devastating disaster's effects would always be felt.
"Obviously what we do, flying in space, is never going to be totally safe, and if anybody wants to make it totally safe then we're just going to have to stay on the ground," he said.
Ross is the author of a new autobiography, "Spacewalker," (Purdue University Press, January 2013) detailing his career in space.
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