HOUSTON -- As the video of the disintegrating Space Shuttle Columbia was shown, yet again, on the local TV station in Houston, the caption at the bottom of the television screen read that yet another area church was going to be open Saturday evening for prayer and memorial services.
Throughout the communities surrounding NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston people were aching and searching for answers to what seemed like inexplicable questions. Churches, synagogues and Hindu temples opened their doors in an effort to provide solace. But there are those who know peace can only be found in the Prince of Peace.
Those most intimately involved in the space shuttle program know there may never be a definitive answer to why the orbiter broke apart Feb. 1 upon reentry into the earth's atmosphere. But those who know shuttles and the Lord know the ultimate answer to all the questions of "why?" can only be found in the sovereignty of the one true God.
"We are dealing with a God who is in control," said Mike Red, who has worked for the NASA engineering directorate at JSC since 1986. "God takes tragedy and turns it to triumph. I believe that."
Recognizing the sovereignty of God keeps things in perspective for David Leestma.
"This is a risky business," Leestma said regarding the space flight program. Having served as mission specialist on three shuttle flights, he is well-acquainted with the potential risk every astronaut takes when he suits up for a mission. "Christians know," he said, "that life here is a vapor."
Leestma played an integral part in the lives of the Columbia crew. "I knew them all," he said. As director of space flight operations from 1992-2000, Leestma oversaw the selection of candidates into the astronaut corps, including those who lost their lives aboard the Columbia.
The former astronaut watched the tense moments Saturday morning unfold from a Houston hospital bed where he lay recovering from surgery the day before. That night or Sunday morning he would be going home. He concluded, based on the early video footage on the television, the Columbia crew would not.
So Leestma prayed for their families. He knew Columbia commander Rick Husband and mission specialist Michael Anderson to be committed Christians and that their families will ultimately find peace in their faith in Christ.
But those who do not know Jesus as Savior, Leestma said, tend to respond to these tragedies with a sense of outrage because they have no hope. But Christians, he added, can use this tragedy as an opportunity to minister to those who are grieving.
Nassau Bay City Manager John Kennedy agreed, adding that the lives of Husband and Anderson can be used as a means to begin the process of sharing one's own faith, a mission that will be greatly needed in Nassau Bay, literally a "bedroom community" to NASA. It is home to nine astronauts and countless shuttle and space station personnel. The town's city hall sits directly across the road from the main NASA entrance.
Kennedy said he and his wife, Brenda, heard testimonies of the lives of the two astronauts during a Steve Green concert. The concert was held when Columbia was about halfway through its 16-day mission. While the shuttle orbited the earth, Green told of his friendship with Husband and Anderson and told of their faith in Christ. Kennedy said Green particularly noted that they were men who wanted to be known for their faith, not their profession.
It had been said, Kennedy added, that the two asked the members of their church, Grace Community Church, to pray that they would have the opportunity to share their faith with the rest of the Columbia crew. It is that faith, shared by their families, that will bring answers to questions. Kennedy said one is already affirmed, "I know that they know these men are in the arms of Jesus."
Kennedy said the lives of Husband and Anderson should inspire other Christians to share their own testimonies and faith in an effort to minister to others.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that is exactly what Brad Loveall did. He knew people would be sensitive to the gospel and believed God leading him to be more open with his faith. So Loveall, who works on the NASA avionics software programs, said he sat down and wrote out his testimony and how he would share it. He even wrote it in Christmas cards that year. And he said he likely will be sharing it again in the days and weeks to come even though, he acknowledged, this event has been a "faith-shaking" experience.
With Israel's first astronaut on board the Columbia, Loveall knew NASA was on a heightened state of security alert. The potential for a terrorist act committed against the orbiter was a real concern prior to the shuttle's launch.
"I had been praying for the crew's safety," Loveall said, "and I was thanking God that everything was going good and they were coming home."
And then the unthinkable happened. The initial shock of the loss and the seemingly ignored prayer subsided as Loveall returned to the grounding of his faith - God's ways and timing are not our own.
"He is in control and [is] the sovereign God. Everything is good because it is his will," Loveall said.
It was control that Mike Red was trying to maintain as he and wife, Cheryl, scrambled Saturday morning to get a Bible quiz competition underway. Dozens of third- through six-graders and their families and sponsors had gathered at Nassau Bay Baptist Church for the annual AWANA competition. At 9 a.m. Central time, Red only knew that NASA's mission control had lost contact with the shuttle.
"The thought that went through my head was the vehicle had been lost," he said. Without confirmation of his fears, Red knew he had to carefully choose his words when making an announcement to the assembly. "We did not want people dealing with rumors."
It was important for the kids to know what was going on, he said, and that the way to respond to the situation was with prayer.
"And so we prayed," he said. "We prayed for the crew. At that point we didn't know [their status]. We prayed for their families. And we prayed for the people on the ground" who would have to deal with the situation.
It was during his presentation of the gospel toward the end of the morning's events that Red told the kids and adults, "People don't understand they may not have tomorrow.... In a world where there is so much uncertainty, people need to know that they don't have to live life in fear."
It is through faith in Christ, he told the crowd, that the world can have a calm assurance of God's presence no matter the circumstances. They need to know, Red said, that God loves them.
Emphasizing that God is in control and that he loves the world will spur these men and other Christians in the communities surrounding the Johnson Space Center to share their faith to those who do not - or will not - go to church. The doors of the churches are open and, in this case, Christians will be going out of them to share a word of faith and hope.
By Albert H. Lee