Originally created 02/03/03

Houston remembers shuttle astronauts who made Texas city their home



HOUSTON -- Every astronaut who reaches space - and many who don't - call the Houston area home during the months and years of required training.

On Sunday, residents flocked to churches and to the gates of NASA's Johnson Space Center to grieve for their seven dead neighbors, killed when space shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon descent.

"It's unbelievable. Seven more heroes," said teary-eyed Linda Varga as she stood at a makeshift shrine outside the space center gates.

Varga moved to the area 17 years ago as the tight-knit community around the Johnson Space Center grieved over the Challenger explosion.

In the four decades since President Lyndon B. Johnson brought Mission Control to his home state, thousands of people have flocked to the area to work on the space program or associated jobs.

Many residents said the Columbia disaster reopened wounds from the Challenger tragedy. They also expressed fear for the future of the space program.

Although it is within the Houston city limits, the NASA community - in an area known as Clear Lake City - is more like a separate company town.

Streets are named for planets and past space programs, like Saturn Lane and Gemini Avenue. Space Center Intermediate School is less than a mile from the complex, and "Space City" appears in the names of numerous businesses along NASA Road 1, the main thoroughfare leading to the center.

The area depends on NASA for its livelihood and social networks. People routinely step outside to watch space shuttles cross the sky.

Varga, 50, an engineer, does not work at the space center. But like many others with jobs elsewhere, she has neighbors who do.

"Just because I don't work here doesn't mean I'm not part of the family," Varga said. "I am part of the family - and they are part of us."

Byron Berry, 56, a computer consultant who worked as a programmer at NASA for six years in the 1990s, said the overwhelming feelings of loss and hopelessness that followed the Challenger explosion came flooding back when he learned Columbia was lost.

"It's so easy to become complacent about the dangers involved. I really believe in the money they spend on the space program, and I'm afraid this sad loss of life is going to impact the funding," he said.

Jim Jacobi, a 77-year-old who is retired from the petrochemical business, moved to the area 30 years ago when Apollo 17 - the last manned mission to the moon - arrived home safely. Jacobi raised four children, among them a son who works for a NASA contractor.

"It's tough. It's a tough loss," he said.

Even people born after the exhilarating, pioneering days of the first orbits and moon landings, when the nation stopped to follow each new adventure, closely follow launches and landings.

Space buff Aaron Smith, 21, grew up down the road from the space center. In 1986, he and classmates watched on television as the Challenger exploded.

"I was in mourning then," said Smith, an aviation-maintenance student. "It was just a tragic day that day, and right now I'm hurting for these astronauts."