Flags at half-staff at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
GREENBELT – Flags were lowered to half-staff Saturday at the Goddard Space Flight Center after the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it approached its landing in Florida.
Scientists at Goddard, including a group of Israelis, coordinated some of the experiments during the shuttle’s 16-day science mission. The Israeli group is studying the effects of dust and smoke clouds in the Mediterranean to better understand climate changes.
The group included atmospheric physicist Joachim Joseph, 71, of Tel Aviv University, who gave a tiny Torah scroll to Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon to take into space.
A rabbi gave the scroll in 1944 to Joseph, then 13, at a Nazi concentration camp. Joseph read from the scroll during his bar mitzvah ceremony, which the rabbi arranged at the camp in secret. The rabbi then gave Joseph the scroll, asking him to keep it and tell people their story.
Joseph said last week that Ramon had helped him fulfill his promise. He said the astronaut asked him if he could borrow the scroll again this spring so his son could read from it during his bar mitzvah.
Alan Williams, a volunteer at Goddard’s visitor center, said the visitor center is normally closed on weekends but opened Saturday for a specially arranged visit of 120 students from Pennsylvania. The students were supposed to tour other areas of Goddard, but that part of the tour was canceled after the Columbia accident, Williams said.
Employees of the visitor center watched news coverage of the disaster on a big-screen TV in the exhibit area.
John Crum of Mitchellville stopped by with his 11-year-old son, Jonathan. Crum said the Columbia tragedy brought back memories of the explosion of the shuttle Challenger in 1986.
“The loss of life in this case is really sad,” Crum said.
One of the other astronauts, William McCool, 41 – a Navy commander from Lubbock, Texas -had graduated second in his 1983 class at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. He became an astronaut in 1996. The Columbia flight was his first spaceflight.
McCool was married with three sons, ages 22, 19 and 14. Naval Academy spokesman Bill Spann said the academy is declining requests for interviews with staff members who may have known him. The academy is referring all inquiries to NASA.
John “Sonny” Wycliffe, 61, of Greenbelt, lives nearby and came to Goddard after he heard the news. Wycliffe, who is Indian-American, said Indian immigrants followed the Columbia’s mission very closely because Indian-born Kalpana Chawla was a crew member. He said Chawla was featured in newspapers for the Indian-American community.
“Indian-Americans take great pride in her,” Wycliffe said.
Chawla emigrated to the United States from India in the 1980s and became a U.S. citizen. Wycliffe said he met her briefly several years ago at the Indian Embassy in Washington.
“I’m shocked and grieved that the whole thing has happened,” he said.