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Believing in space flight despite personal losses

Three men will watch Discovery liftoff with memories of tragedy

By Elizabeth Yuan
CNN

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Kalpana Chawla performs research during her Columbia mission in this January 18, 2003 photo.

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(CNN) -- Three men, each touched by tragedy related to a NASA space program, have not had their faith in the space agency's mission shaken.

One man's colleagues and friends were burned to death on a launch pad; another watched as the shuttle carrying his brother exploded in flight; another's beloved cousin perished as her shuttle disintegrated 40 miles from its return to Earth.

Despite these losses, they will all be watching Discovery's takeoff Tuesday morning in a spirit of support.

Wally Schirra flew the first manned Apollo flight, only a year and a half after January 27, 1967, when a fire on the launch pad killed Apollo 1 colleagues Edward White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee. Schirra would become the only astronaut to have flown in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions.

Carl McNair is finishing a book about his brother Ron, who was killed in the 1986 Challenger explosion. McNair said he was compelled to write "From Slaveship to Spaceship" for his daughter and his brother's two children, who were too young to remember their uncle and father.

And Girish Chawla remembers expressing worries to his astronaut cousin Kalpana before her first mission aboard Columbia in 1997. She had told him that the chance of something going wrong was "point-zero-zero-zero-one percent."

Chawla recalled her telling him, "The only [disasters] were the Apollo and the shuttle [Challenger]. The chances are very, very low." India's first woman astronaut would perish upon the return of her second mission -- aboard Columbia in 2003.

Wearing black armband

Schirra, now 82, said he'll be watching the launch of Discovery on television. "We're all interested in how we get back into space again," he said.

"After the Apollo 1 crew was lost, we said that we wore a black armband for a few weeks, and we wear it in our hearts forever." Schirra said that having been a test pilot and a Korean War veteran, he and his fellow astronauts knew they were not immune to accidents.

The October 11, 1968, launch of Apollo 7, carrying Schirra and pilots Donn Eisele and Walter Cunningham, was seen as a critical test for NASA to get back on track in achieving President John F. Kennedy's goal: to get a man on the moon and back before the decade was out.

"If the mission didn't succeed, we would have held up the whole program," said Schirra, who chronicles the era in a new book, "The Real Space Cowboys," co-written by Ed Buckbee, who was NASA's public affairs officer at the time.

Apollo 7 and the next three missions provided the stepping stones for the historic lunar landing of Apollo 11 nine months later.

Always an eye on danger

Carl McNair, now 55, will "most definitely" be watching Discovery's return to space.

On September 29, 1988, he and his family went to Florida to watch an earlier Discovery return to flight -- the first shuttle launch after the Challenger explosion.

"Sometimes there are things that are important enough that you risk your life," said McNair, who founded the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Foundation, which since 1986 has prepared some 20,000 students for graduate programs in math, science and technology.

The Atlanta business consultant listed things that the technology developed for the space program later helped make possible: magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), telecommunications and cell phones, CNN's own satellite, miniaturized computer systems and Game Boys.

McNair's brother conducted experiments on lab animals during his first space mission, aboard Challenger in 1984.

"Perhaps one day [medical research in space] will bring us cures to cancer, heart disease, African-American sickle cell disease, and a host of other things," McNair said.

While he thinks NASA is ready for the mission, "we are forever reminded that whenever a shuttle takes off and lands, there's always the possibility of danger and tragedy," he said.

McNair's book will be released on January 28, 2006, Challenger's 20th anniversary.

'The show should go on'

Chawla says he will watch Discovery's launch. But the 39-year-old Atlanta real estate agent admits he was never fascinated with space and flight like his cousin was.

As a child, Kalpana was "very, very ambitious and very focused," said Chawla, who is four years younger. "She was into the aeronautical side. She loved airplanes from Day One. And she once told me, 'If I die, I want to die in an air crash.' "

Chawla said that his cousin used to fly planes with her husband "J.P." [Jean-Pierre Harrison]. She once took him on an "eight- to 10-minute joyride" over the Colorado mountains.

It was at the University of Colorado at Boulder that the future Columbia astronaut received her Ph.D. in aerospace engineering in 1988.

Kalpana, just 5 feet tall, also earned a black belt in judo and karate.

Chawla visited her parents in India in February. "They don't think the research should stop. They are of the opinion that the show should go on," he said.

Chawla recalled an anecdote related to him by Kalpana's sister: Kalpana was looking out the [shuttle's] window and noticed her own eye reflected back. In her eye, she said, she saw a reflection of Earth.

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