Web posted Sunday, February 9, 2003

Rosalind Hobgood: Secretary remembers her "astros."
Michael Schumacher/mschumacher@amarillonet.com
Crew leaves 'Eighth Astronaut' behind

By Karen D. Smith

©2003 Amarillo Globe-News

SPACE CENTER, Houston - The eighth crew member survives alone.

Though never trained for the weightlessness of space, Rosalind Hobgood floats untethered in the void left by seven astronauts who didn't return to Earth.

"I know they're in heaven, just a little bit higher," said Hobgood, assigned from the crew's beginning to be its secretary, ground support for a mission into space.

Hobgood, 38, recalled watching the sky over Tuesday's memorial service at Johnson Space Center, when one NASA T-38 broke from formation and soared straight toward the heavens in a missing man flyover to honor astronauts Rick Husband of Amarillo, William C. "Willie" McCool of Lubbock, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel B. Clark, Michael P. Anderson, David Brown and Ilan Ramon.

"He just kept going and going and going," she said. "And I thought about the launch and how you watch them until you can't see them anymore, and you're still looking - and it's just incredible. That's kind of how I feel about them. They took off and just never came back."

But they left behind the woman they called "The Great and Powerful Roz."

The nickname stemmed from her desire to please the crew, especially Crew Commander Husband, Hobgood said.

"He couldn't ask me to do anything that I would not come through," Hobgood said. "I don't care who I had to go over or around. I always said, 'You guys, just collect the canned goods for my kids when they fire me.' But I got whatever it was."

From the beginning, Hobgood and crew worked toward a launch date constantly pushed back from November 2001. It settled, finally, on Jan. 16, 2003.

'He lit up my every day'

Hobgood met Rick Husband first, in November 1999, when the "gentle giant" moved into the office they would share for a while. Boxes crowded his area, but he never had time to unpack.

"Every day, he'd come in his office some time in the day and sit at his desk ... and I'd hear this THUD!" said Hobgood, who lives in Clear Lake City. "His legs were so long, and he kept hitting his legs on the table.

"And you know, I took it for as long as I could, then one day he was out, like, for a week or something, I went and cleaned his office and started putting things away just to help him out."

photo: specialsection

  The Eighth Crew Member: Roz Hobgood was the secretary for STS-107 crew members. She remembers fondly each of the seven astronauts who perished Feb. 1 when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas.
Michael Schumacher/mschumacher@amarillonet.com
She realized the gesture might seem pushy, but Husband appreciated it. Hobgood laughed at the memory. "Every day, THUD!"

"What can I tell you about Rick? He would just walk into the room and go from a smile to a big smile," Hobgood said. "And it was always just with love and it was pure, there wasn't anything fake about it. It was completely honest. And every day, I got to see that. Monday through Friday. Monday through Friday.

"He lit up my every day."

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, NASA trimmed spots available on launch and landing guest lists, with security on STS-107 extra tight because of the presence of Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force.

"And I didn't, nor did this group, feel like we wanted to cut back," said Hobgood, who regularly worked to wrangle approval for more guests. "I felt like this was such a special mission we should have gone to extremes to let more people know about this.

"It was special because Rick, this was his first time to be commander. And usually the pilots fly a couple of times before they get to that role. So I knew he was exceptional. And I knew he was exceptional because of things I had read about him. I knew he was exceptional because of what I knew about him. I knew he was exceptional because of his family and his family ties. His family's absolutely wonderful.

"If I were to look for someone in my life that I would want for my soulmate in life, they would have a hard time because they would have to model themselves after him and my father. You know what I'm saying?"

Husband provided the glue for the diverse group of astronauts.

"I think they already had a good spirit, but his spirit helped embrace that and pull it together," Hobgood said. "All of these guys, they all had different backgrounds. They all had different strengths. They all had different, very different personalities. But when they were together, they were a team. They were a network. They were a group."

Hugs, candy, long talks

When the others joined Husband, Hobgood studied up.

"I'm not a person that's intimidated, but I went and I pulled their bios so I could know more about them, see where they're from, so I could try to adapt my understanding of what their needs might be or how they talked," Hobgood said. "People from different places talk different ways, and they might not mean to be so abrupt, but they're just from New York or whatever, you know?

"And I got to looking at K.C., Kalpana, and it said Ph.D. 'Alrighty then.' Laurel Clark, commander U.S. naval scuba diving, doctor. 'Oh, I'm going to have trouble with her.' And she and I were the best of buds."

As much as she tried to spoil them, the astronauts spoiled her seven times over, she said.

"I was greeted with hugs in the morning," Hobgood said. "They hugged me all the time, you know, and I hugged them. And we smiled at each other, and we talked. Every day I had candy or flowers, or at least once a week. If they missed a week, I wouldn't say anything."

Instead of wings, Hobgood treasures the little gray astronaut - "ugly little thing, really. It wasn't cute at all" - the astronauts gave her to signify her inclusion in the crew. McCool had received eight of the souvenirs from a vendor.

Some staffers called McCool "Kevin Bacon" because he looked so much like the actor, Hobgood said.

His wife, Lani, made leis, and he often brought her one, when he wasn't bringing her candy or flowers, she said.

"Willie was very modest. Willie had a lot going for him. He also had a lovely family and a lovely relationship with his wife and his kids. He always had a hug for me. And I'd look for it, because I needed a hug.

"I'm going to miss him. I spent a lot of personal time talking to him."

David Brown arranged for her first ride in a hot air balloon. And the balloon pilot took her directly over Johnson Space Center so she could wave at her friends on the sixth floor of 4 South building.

"Dave had piercing blue eyes. Piercing blue eyes," she said. "I couldn't really look at him at first; I had to turn away because I thought, 'This guy's going to see into my soul."'

Brown developed a deep interest in photography and had recently attended a multiday workshop to learn lighting techniques, which he explained at great length.

He explained everything in voluminous detail, setting such a slow, methodical pace for the information that Hobgood laughs when she thinks about it.

"NASA lost so much," she said. "I know the photography he was going to bring back was going to be incredible. He had just an incredible eye."

Hobgood already had purchased Valentine M&Ms to give Brown, the candy lover, upon his return.

Keeping candy on her desk was a suggestion that came from Chawla, called K.C. because so few could pronounce her name correctly, Hobgood said. Chawla said the treats would entice more people to stop by to see her.

A "natural perfectionist," Chawla would come to her with problems and solutions, she said.

"She was the type of person that it was or it wasn't right. It was this, or it was that. But she never made you feel bad because you didn't have it right," Hobgood said. "I'd see her coming, and I'd say, 'Oh Lord, here comes K.C.,' and whatever I was working on, I'd put it aside because I could see it in her eyes she was coming for a question. ... And when she would leave, my brain would hurt because I had followed, paid that much attention."

Chawla tried out a new plane during the holidays and recounted a trip to some particularly beautiful part of Texas.

"The way she described it - it was like she was ready, she was prepared," Hobgood said. "Physically and mentally, that flight did something for her. She wouldn't be the type of person to tell me that it's beautiful if it wasn't. And then for them to have the final part of their lives over Texas ... it's like everybody there was at peace, you know? That was her peace."

A Christmas serenade

Anderson didn't say much unless you asked him about cars.

"Mike was quiet. He was one of the quietest ones. And I'd tease him because he had two sisters and a daughter and a wife, and he was just a smart man, you know?" Hobgood said with a laugh. "He wasn't no dummy, because he knew when to talk and when not to talk."

Cars became conversation starters. And so, seven or eight months ago, she asked him why he had gotten a new, second Porsche.

"And he told me that he had bought something for his wife, and he had bought things for his daughters, and he had bought the Porsche for himself," Hobgood said. "And, I said, 'Well, geez man' - this is how I talked to them - 'why don't you wait until you come back? You ain't done nothing yet.'

"And he was kind of a serious-minded person. He said, 'There's an incredible risk. I don't know if I'm going to come back, and I want to enjoy this."'

She paused. "Yeah, he sat right there in that office and told me that. That really struck me when this occurred."

Hobgood had a hard time talking about Clark, whose name she shortened to Laurel B.

"We grew to be so close," she said, pausing. "That it's just hard. It's just hard, you know, to think about her."

Hobgood took a deep breath.

"Let me talk about funny things, so I can stay here with you," she said.

Clark would rather speak face to face than in e-mails or by phone. She would pop in to Hobgood's office and then pop out - repeatedly.

"She'd go out of the room, and she'd come right on back in and she'd have part two," Hobgood said. "At that point, I'd tell the girls in the office, 'Let's count down: 30, 29...' And she'd walk back in, and we'd look at each other and smile."

Clark took on the responsibility of creating the shuttle patch, stickers, pins and jewelry - and showed her perfectionism.

"We rejected so many things because it wasn't just right," Hobgood said. "She knew what color the earth was supposed to be. She knew what color the water was supposed to be. She knew what she wanted. And the patches turned out beautiful. The pins turned out beautiful. The jewelry turned out beautiful. It had no color, but she knew that the sunburst should have been smaller or it should have been over here. She knew that patch up and down."

Ramon expanded Hobgood's world, she said.

"I called him 'The Man,"' she said. "My consciousness and my ability to pay attention to world issues and the plight of Israel and to pay attention to history was all opened because of working with this man."

As crew secretary, Hobgood took care of all the special items astronauts planned to take into space - mementos that meant the world to them and souvenirs that would become treasured artifacts for groups and individuals.

Hobgood especially loved learning about the items Ramon would travel with.

"I would say, 'What's this, man?' And he'd take the time to sit there and tell me what it was or what it meant," Hobgood said. "He had some things from the Holocaust that were so important to him. I'm just hoping that maybe they'll find some of that.

"That was the only time he'd watch me because he wanted to make sure I handled that carefully and that it was secure. Just holding those items - it did something to me."

She recalled teasing Ramon one day when all of his crewmates were present.

"One day I saw him writing and he was writing in Hebrew, and I said, 'Ilan, are you dyslexic? You're writing backward.' And we were all cracking up. I said, 'This man is dyslexic. Don't let him go up there.'

"Those are the kind of days that we have. And that's a little bit, a little bit of my seven crew."

In December, the Columbia Seven sang a Christmas carol by cell phone to the Columbia Eighth as their bus headed toward the launch pad. They were there to review materials and practice escape plans.

The phone had been passed from astronaut to astronaut before it landed in the hand of mission specialist Brown.

"I said, 'So Dave, what's going on, man? What's happening, honey?' And being Dave Brown, he said, 'Well, Roz, we're driving down the street, we're in the bus, we're all together, here we're going around the curve, we're turning around.' Then he says, 'There it is. It's beautiful, Roz.' The shuttle is before them. And I said, 'Oh, wow.'

"And I don't know what happened, but they all started singing 'We Wish You A Merry Christmas' to me because it was around the holidays. And they were just singing to me on the way to their shuttle, and that meant so, so much..." She had to pause. "To me. You know, it's their thing, but it was like making me a part of that."

'I wanted them to have a good time'

"All of them taught me," Hobgood said. "Rick taught me - unbelievable - a lot of things. I'm going to have to live up to those things now. You know? I mean, I have a whole other view of where my life is to go at this point. I thought they'd be around to tutor me a little bit longer so I could fool around a little bit more. But they taught me."

She urged them to have fun on their mission.

"I said, 'If y'all don't do anything else, take the rat and just let it float around and watch it - get a picture," she said. "Those are the kinds of things I was waiting for them to come home to tell me about."

Launch day dawned beautifully.

"The people were there. I had the house packed," Hobgood said. "I actually drove people out to the launch because they had run out of seats on the bus. Nobody's going to miss this. Not those guys - I was so proud of them that anybody who was in my contact, I wanted them to know about Columbia."

As the astronauts prepared to go into space, Hobgood took care of family and friends on the ground.

"The way I describe it, it's like having seven daughters in seven weddings on the same day," Hobgood said. "Because you want it to be perfect. You want everybody there. You want to make sure everybody has what they need, they know where to go, who to contact."

Once her "astros" were in orbit, she began creating a wall of photos, e-mails and decorations for their return. She had so many questions.

"I didn't bother them in space," Hobgood said. "I wanted them to have a good time, and I knew we'd have time to talk. I wanted to ask how did they feel, did they get sick.

"And my biggest question was, I like fish. And they had a fish. And I'm not a physics major, I'm not any of that, but I couldn't understand how a fish was going to act in space in water. That just blew my mind."

She talked to them by e-mail. And on the Thursday before they were to land, she got to visit them through a satellite video link. But she couldn't see them all.

"I started counting and said, 'OK, where's Willie? Where's Mike? ET didn't get them, did he?' Up floats Willie from the bottom, and he puts his face right in the camera. And up comes Mike, and he comes right to the camera. And I think, now I've got seven. I'm happy now.

"It was only 16 days. That was the longest time I had been away from any of them, I want you guys to know. Sixteen days plus the quarantine days. That was long."

'I just knew they were coming home'

By all rights, she shouldn't have been at Cape Canaveral for the landing Feb. 1.

NASA had stopped sending crew secretaries from Houston to landings a while back because fewer guests attended them, Hobgood said.

But members of her crew's families asked JSC administrators to let her go with them, she said. Family members had dinner together the night before the landing.

The next day, she checked in 75 guests and then rode with staffers to the landing site.

At the viewing stands, things were crazy. She busied herself introducing people to astros and handing out stickers, patches and other souvenirs. Then she sat to watch the landing with one of Ilan Ramon's sons.

"We all got in our places. They started counting down, and it got to zero - and nothing," she said. "And the lady who handles the family escorts ... she stood by me very calmly and she said, 'Roz, they've lost communication.'

"And I'm looking at the clock, and I'm looking at the sky, and they kept resetting the time on the clock. When she beckoned to me, we started getting the families, and I just helped her, guiding them down.

"And I was just holding Lani's (McCool's wife), hand, and I said, 'I can't go with you. I have to stay here.' And I put her son's hand in hers - I wanted them to stay together - and I said, 'Take care of your mother.'

"They kept putting more time on the clock. And I was no dummy because I knew there was one chance for entry, but I didn't know what had happened. I said, 'Maybe the clock is bad. I don't know."'

Hobgood tried to console family members.

"I turned and I looked up at the sky, and there's Rick's mother, sitting there with her son (Keith Husband). And she puts her hand out to me," Hobgood said. "I said 'They're coming, they're coming. They've got to come.'

"Then I look and up in the stands was Laurel's sister, there by herself, and she's looking at me like, 'Roz, what's going on?"'

Finally, an announcement came.

"They tell us, 'Houston has lost communication with Columbia. Please reboard the buses, and we'll take you to the auditorium.' I looked in the sky like I just couldn't believe it, because I just knew they were coming home. I mean, you couldn't tell me that they weren't coming home.

"I said Rick is a heck of a pilot. OK, maybe they didn't land here. But they are somewhere. If it's on a freeway, if it's in a pile of bushes or something, but he landed that baby - 'cause I know Rick," she said, using her index finger to pound the conviction of her last three words on the tabletop.

After what seemed an eternity, Astronaut Corps Chief Capt. Kent Rominger entered the auditorium.

"I saw the look on his face," Hobgood said. "And he tells us that the Columbia has come apart and they didn't expect any survivors."

The news caused a new wave of emotion.

Members of one family helped those of another cope.

"That's what I'm saying about the bonding in the families, how not only the astronauts were good, the astronauts' families were good, and the astronauts' families were good to other families," Hobgood said. "There was so much love there."

Consoling others can be difficult when your own heart is breaking, she said.

"It was in pieces, because they lost their family member, but I lost seven. Seven people who meant a lot to me," she said. "And I thought only I knew that they meant that much to me and I meant that much to them. But their families knew it, our office knew it."

A friend of Ramon's told her she hadn't come to the landing site by chance.

"He said, 'You were meant to be here. We needed you.' And I had to go sit somewhere by myself. This was the only time I had to really reflect on this," she said.

Hobgood boarded one of the last planes returning to Ellington Field, near NASA. As she flew home, she thought about the walk she would have to make across the tarmac to her car.

"In my mind, I kept thinking about how many times my guys had gotten in those T-38s and walked across that lot," she said.

At the base of the plane stairs stood astronauts Marsha Ivins and Jim Reilly, "waiting to escort me home. They were all dressed up in their blue flight suits, and they were there for me," Hobgood said.

"I don't know if they know how much that meant. I just didn't think that they would be there for me. But to be standing there. With those blue flight suits. And I saw them." She paused. "I needed that. I needed that."

'They were so close, so close'

Already, Hobgood has been assigned a new crew, though she hasn't been back to work.

"I can't see myself in that office and not have them come in," she said. "And my next crew may be just as nice, I don't know. I said that I wasn't going to get close to them, and then somebody said, 'Roz, that's not you.'

"But I don't know how I could sit and watch a launch again and continue with the fear. You know, back to what Mike said, that risk is real now."

The deaths of Rick, and Willie, and Dave, and K.C., and Mike, and Laurel B., and The Man are difficult to accept, Hobgood said.

"I can't even describe the hurt. Still the hurt," Hobgood said. "I mean, I still look at the sky and say, 'Well, maybe they went back up and they don't have any communication and they're trying to figure out a way to get here. And I know they've been through a survival course, so they can survive. And we had so many smart people.' I'm still kind of in la-la land.

"Yes, I'm angry. I'm angry. And they waited so long, and they spent so much time, and they studied, and they worked so hard, and they were so close, so close for something to have gone wrong that it just breaks my heart. And the world cries with us.

"Seven at one time. In front of the world. And doing such a miraculous feat."