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Disaster of mission STS-107: The families, the children waited at the landing strip.. slowly the truth dawned and they were led away in shock.

Byline: GEMMA HORNETT and GRAHAM CULLIFORD

THE tragic astronauts' families hugged each other in disbelief yesterday as the appalling truth dawned - their loved ones were not coming home.

Children and relatives of the crew were standing impatiently in the Florida sunshine, hardly able to contain their excitement at the seven Shuttle heroes' return.

But the routine touchdown by Columbia never came...only the chilling word that something had gone wrong - awfully wrong - in the final minutes of STS-107's return to Cape Canaveral.

NASA officials gently ushered the stunned families from their spot by the runway to a quiet room and broke the news that there was no hope.

One NASA worker said: "The families had been getting more excited by the minute. But then the realisation set in that something they dreaded had happened.

"At first there were whispered conversations, then the tears started to flow. Once it was confirmed that Columbia had exploded they knew their loved ones were lost.

"The tears turned to sobs and they hugged each other. As news of the tragedy was flashed round the world the heartbroken families were led away to quiet rooms."

Another NASA employee said it was a "nightmare come true".

He added: "It was so cruel. Some of the families had been watching the Shuttle's return on a hook-up to Nasa's radar screens. Then it was missing.

"You felt so helpless. There was just nothing you could do, nothing you could say to comfort them."

Today the only comfort the families can find is in the memories of what seven brave loved ones said before they set off on their space adventure 16 days ago...

Israel's first astronaut, father-of-four Ilan Ramon, was among those who died as Columbia broke up nearly 40 miles above earth.

His proud 79-year-old father was being interviewed live on TV in Jerusalem as news that the Shuttle was lost came through.

The devastated old man was led gently away.

Ilan's sister-in-law Orna Barr said from Israel last night: "He was a wonderful family man and truly loved his job and his country."

Ilan, 48, was revered in Israel as an air force colonel and war hero fighter pilot. His mother and grandmother survived the Auschwitz death camp.

Ilan's wife Rona and their children have been living in Texas as he trained for the Shuttle flight.

The astronaut was not particularly religious but decided to eat kosher food in orbit.

To honour Holocaust victims he carried a small drawing titled Moon Landscape by Peter Ginz, a 14-year-old Auschwitz victim.

From space he told his family: "The world looks marvellous, so peaceful, so wonderful, so fragile."

Pilot Willie McCool, 41, was a fellow space rookie. The navy commander from Lubbock, Texas, was father to three sons. He excelled as a test pilot, earning himself a chance of a Shuttle ride.

From space, he said: "I've had chance to soak up the sunrises and sunsets, the moonrises and moonsets, the views of the Himalayas, Australia, all the continents."

Willie, also the mission's flight surgeon, was a keen runner, cyclist, hiker and camper.

Commander Rick Husband had known since he was a kid in Amarillo, Texas, that he was going to be a spaceman. It took him four tries but he was chosen as an astronaut in 1994. Before the 45-year-old air force colonel boarded Columbia for his second space trip: "It's been pretty much a lifelong dream and just a thrill to be able to get to actually live it out." But family man Rick attached the same importance to his time with his wife and two children.

"The most exciting events were my marriage and the births of our children," he said.

It was the second space mission for Michael Anderson, 43, one of America's few black astronauts.

The Shuttle payload commander from Spokane, Washington, had been looking forward to the re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. He said: "Entries are better than launch. It's a little quieter, not quite as violent."

Michael, son of an air force family, travelled to Russia's Mir space station in 1998.

Kalpana Chawla, 41, emigrated to the US from India in the 1980s and became an astronaut in 1994.

She was on her second flight. Speaking of the way her face reflected in the orbiter's windows, she said: "In the retina of my eye, the whole Earth and the sky could be seen reflected."

Bachelor David Brown, 46, was from Arlington, Virginia, and became an award-winning surgeon in the Navy.

He was the only flight surgeon in 10 years picked for pilot training and was chosen by NASA to become an astronaut in 1996. He was on his first space mission.

Joking about his hobby as an acrobat, he said: "I got to do some backflips here in the module."

Dr Laurel Clark, married with an eight-year-old son, leaves some of the most poignant words from the Shuttle disaster.

Laurel, 41, from Iowa, was a Navy diving medical officer aboard submarines, then flight surgeon who became an astronaut in 1996.

Talking of experiments on board with plant life, she said: "There were roses. They had been buds and had opened to bloom.

"It was so magical to have roses growing in our laboratory in space... life is a magical thing."

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TRAGIC CREW: They wave and smile before leaving on 16-day mission
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Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:Feb 2, 2003
Words:891
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