Texas, for most Hudson County residents, seems as distant as the moon, yet the disaster of the Space Shuttle Columbia touched the lives of some officials and other residents in a significant way.
Last weekend, the Columbia was ripped to pieces over Texas by massive pressures due to re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. It was 16 minutes away from landing at Cape Canaveral in Florida. All seven astronauts on board were killed.
Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9th Dist.) had helped foster local connections with the shuttle program.
"As a Congressman, I have had the honor of getting to personally know a number of our NASA astronauts, having brought them to several Bergen and Hudson County elementary and middle schools," he said in an interview last week, in reaction to the disaster. "As the astronauts made their presentations and discussed their experiences, I saw the eyes of the children light up with wonder, amazement, and admiration. Our astronauts, who are some of the brightest people on our planet, are heroes to all of us, and in particular to our children, who see the hope of a better tomorrow for themselves through the eyes of our space explorers."
In offering his prayers and thoughts to the families and friends of the astronauts lost in the tragedy, Rothman noted that it was an international disaster, striking down heroes from India and Israel as well as the United States.
"Throughout our modern history, the NASA program and the astronauts who have courageously committed their lives to space exploration have represented the hope and promise of the future," he said. "These brave men and women are the ones who set out to find the answers that further the understanding of our existence and provide the keys to the technology of the future."
Rothman acknowledged that many people had "an emptiness deep within us," but said the county must continue its space program despite the disaster and the risks.
Fellow congressman Rep. Bob Menendez (D-13th Dist.) extended his sympathy to the families and said he grieved the loss of the seven men and women lost.
"This tragedy reminds us of the perils of space travel and the risks these heroes accepted in order to improve all of our lives," he said in a press release.
In touch with NASA
Secaucus Town Administrator Anthony Iacono and his son, Paul, did a tour of the NASA Space Camp last summer, so the details of the space craft and its missions remained vivid images in their minds.
"It is very scary," Anthony Iacono said. "When you think about how serious these missions are. Unfortunately, people have taken these flights for granted, since we haven't had a major disaster in nearly 20 years. This is not your typical plane ride. That's something we learned from the NASA Center in Alabama. And we realized this when we saw the memorial to the Challenger crew when we were down there."
Seventeen years ago, the Challenger Shuttle exploded on takeoff.
"My 9-year-old son [Paul] is very confused," Iacono said. "He asked me a lot of questions. I don't know if he comprehends it. I know that when we were at the camp and saw the replicas on display, it is hard for me to imagine a shuttle that large broken up into so many pieces."
Larry Dicken, a resident of Harmon Cove and a former employee at NASA during earlier space programs, said he was "shocked and saddened" by the events, especially in a time of national stress post-9/11 and the expected war in the Persian Gulf.
Dicken did work on the Saturn Apollo Program at the NASA facilities in the New Orleans area and the Mars Mariner program at JPL in Pasadena, Calif. as a contractor employee until 1971.
"Today, as in 1986 when the Challenger disaster took place, and the prior Apollo launch pad fire [in 1967], I was both shocked and saddened by the loss of the lives of our brave astronauts," he said. "These tragic events can never be anticipated and are always a surprise. But historically, we must realize the extraordinary safety record of the manned NASA missions."
Dicken said that NASA exerted an "immense amount of both human and computer resources" to assure that space missions are accomplished without problems that could jeopardize either human life or the missions.
"The safeguards - enabled by the application of today's technology - far exceed that utilized when I worked with NASA, guaranteeing even less chance for problems," he said.
Like Menendez and Rothman, Dicken said the space program must continue.
"It is the light and leading edge of mankind's quest for knowledge of the universe," he said. "And, although each space mission involves risk, that risk is small compared to many that others take on a day-to-day basis, due to the diligence of the thousands who work within NASA to assure the safety and success of the missions."
Dickens said he was impressed with how forthright NASA has been on the possible causes of the disaster, and believes they will find a resolution quickly to assure it will not happen in the future.
Mayor Dennis Elwell called the shuttle disaster "a terrible, terrible shock," and called all the astronauts involved in the space program heroes. He believed the county should continue to invest in space exploration, both for the discoveries and for the benefit to the economy.
"This is something good for mankind," Elwell said, "Although I know how painful it must be for the families involved."
Schools react to situation
Secaucus High School dedicated its front display case to the memory of the seven astronauts: Col. Rick Husband, Lt. Col. Michael Anderson, Commander Laurel Clark, Captain David Brown, Commander William McCool, Dr. Kalpana Chawla, and Israeli Air Force Col. Ilan Ramon.
"We thought we would do a moment of silence, but decided to wait until the national day of mourning," said Assistant Principal Frank Costello. The day of mourning occurred Tuesday, Feb. 4.
The high school is also considering sewing a quilt in honor of the astronauts.
"We want to honor the memory of Columbia of SD107," he said.
For several years, Secaucus High School was involved with Kearny High School and West New York in an aerospace program, and launched rockets as part of their study. Although Secaucus dropped out of the program, West New York and Kearny continued in a revised fashion, combining aerospace and TV production.
"There are several students in class who are interested in becoming astronauts or have an interest in aerospace engineering," said Doug Neralich, of Memorial High School in West New York. "I got instant messages and emails from a few of the students over the weekend. As you might expect, they were very upset. We have had discussions about the Columbia with small groups of students, and we are planning our response. Subject to approvals by our Boards of Education, we may plan and produce a video tribute that can be aired on our local cable TV affiliates and sent to NASA."
Pat Cocucci, principal of Huber Street School in Secaucus, said he struggled with how to present the tragedy to his kids since his school offered a very active study of the space program.
"The loss of life and sudden tragedy made me think about how to deal with it," Cocucci said. "At first, I thought I would talk about it over the intercom. But I realized that Sept. 11 is still fresh in many kids' minds. But we have informed our teachers and students that if kids need help, we'll provide them with counseling. Our teachers and guidance counselors are here to support any of the kids who need us."