Coming Down

A "routine" shuttle descent winds up stunning Space City

A handful of reporters had been ready for the Columbia landing, which had seemed like a footnote to the harsher news of pending war and a sluggish economy. Now they were scrambling to cover the disaster. TV reporters stood outside JSC in front of old rockets doing live, "We're here at NASA to keep you informed and updated" shots.

They waited to watch a live video of the 10 a.m. NASA news conference at Kennedy Space Center, which was postponed until about 1 p.m. In the interim, about a dozen NASA spokespeople did multilingual live, on-air interviews reciting standard press releases. As the wait lengthened, reporters busied themselves with previously ignored press kits listing astronaut hobbies and other Playboy-centerfold -style biographical facts.

NASA communications workers tried to ignore their own distractions. Beth Nischik had just learned that her father in Chicago had suffered a heart attack. She wanted to fly there. She stayed at NASA. "I don't know where I need to be," she said. "This has been a really crazy day."

Outside the building, mourners were already arriving with flowers to begin a makeshift memorial that will eventually stretch for blocks.

Astronaut-hopeful Grant spent the morning eating bagels and watching CNN. He and his father arrived at Space Center Houston around 1:30 p.m. The teen-ager talked with more machismo than ever before about his goal of going into space. "It's a risk," he said. "But it's worth it. I'd be more angry if I hadn't tried and had just sat around."

"He has to do what he wants to do," his dad said. "I'm quite prepared for it."

Mike headed straight to the gift shop to spend the birthday money his aunt mailed him.

He wanted a NASA T-shirt. The one that says "Failure is not an option."

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