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Engineer reflects on the Columbia shuttle accident

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. - Jerry Elliot's not the initial image you think of when the term "Rocket Scientist" comes up. He's a Cherokee/Osage and very traditional in his Indian ways. Astronaut John Herrington said of Elliot "He's been here since the mid 60s. He's a very traditional Indian but he's also a physicist and an engineer."

For Apollo 13, Elliot was the retrofire officer in mission control, responsible for the calculations for where the crippled Command Module would land. One of the most critical decisions for the flight was how quickly to return the spacecraft to the Earth, which would determine where it would land in relationship to the rescue forces. It was Elliot's team's responsibility to do those calculations. Elliott was awarded the highest civilian honor in the nation, the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his role in safely returning the crew. Shortly after the Columbia accident Elliot sent this e-mail to Indian Country Today. We reprint it with his permission and thank him for sharing his thoughts with the American Indian community.

"Forgive me, but I have been terribly shaken today as expected. I am only able to just now write. I got alerted to the tragedy about 6:55 a.m. this morning with a first call, then 10 minutes later by my best friend who is an astronaut (John Herrington. He went up on the last mission in November and did three space walks.) He was in his truck heading towards NASA. I really lost it emotionally. I grieved for about an hour and a half until I cried out everything I had. Then, I also headed for NASA.

People were numb and in denial and disbelief. News reporters and cameras were already beginning to arrive and set up. There was an atmosphere of gloom that prevailed along with the fog and mist that had set in. Driving, I could barely see more than a couple of blocks ahead of me at any one time. Others were arriving to share a few moments of grief, then we began to investigate some plausible explanations and do some root cause analyses to try to determine and pinpoint the problem. We generated several reasonable theories and think we understand what happened, but not why it happened. Maybe only God knows why, I don't know.

At this point, without all the data and actual pieces of the wreckage to examine, we had little to go on. These were friends of mine and everyone there at NASA. We are one big family, not just scientists, engineers and astronauts. The families of the astronauts were gathered at Florida awaiting the arrival of their astronaut 'heroes' who had a very successful mission and accomplished all their objectives except one: safe return and landing. They managed to accomplish not only their mission, but their dreams. They were willing to take the risks to do it for themselves, their families, their friends, their government and nation ... for all the people of this great country and world.

This was purely a scientific mission with lots of very important experiments to conduct for the benefit of society and the world at large. One whose results would ultimately help people.

As I left my office, I walked past the lonely and abandoned, vacated offices of the astronauts and again, a sad, eerie and gloomy air descended heavily around the outside of the building. The window panes sweat on the glass of each office window were like tears running down them. There were flocks of birds around the premises that were grounded and unable to fly as if they knew somehow the fate of the crew and their final departure.

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I finally made my way to the cafeteria where the locked doors opened for hungry and grieving mouths. Joining the line was a woman flight controller whose face and name I did not know. She saw the tears in my eyes and asked if I was all right. I said, "No." Instantaneously, we hugged each other for a brief moment, each of us grieving with tears that made a pool on the floor beneath our feet. She thanked me and said she needed that. It was hard to eat with an appetite that refused to cooperate.

Lines of public sympathizers began arriving in front of NASA's locked gates and armed guards. They laid flowers, gifts, wreaths and other trappings on the fences, and on the ground. Strangers stood together in a unity I have not witnessed since 9-11 incidents. Some prayed, some cried, some just stood in silence as the flags at NASA slowly lowered to half mast, and the sun hid its head behind the clouds and fog that formed in the heavens above. It was a solemn day of appreciated silence to let the grief take control, and also one of reflection. It was a day to be reminded of the preciousness of life ... that each heart beat is a precious gift from God. A remainder that we should all thank God more often for our gift of life, and the heart beats bestowed. A day to also remember not to put off telling the ones you love that you love them. The families of the crew waiting on the ground for them to arrive never got that last chance. We should all take the opportunity while we are alive, while we still have heart beats left. We all take too much for granted, and let our 'problems' take over and occupy our minds without letting our hearts be grateful and appreciate the things God does for each of us not only every day, but every second.

Today is a day I will never forget along with the Apollo 1 fire on the pad, the Challenger 7 explosion on launch and the Apollo 13 incident. Although things broke apart, we recovered from them stronger than before.

Once again, the nation has been motivated by a national tragedy - one in which we once again, will not fail nor yield to the temptations of defeat.

We are never given to failure, subscribing to the oath and pledge that you only fail when you give up trying.

It is okay to fall down. But failure only occurs when you don't get back up. If you stay down, you fail. Today, bruised and battered, we got back up! That's part of the strength and resolve of the NASA family, the American people and this great nation. That's what makes me proud to be an American! God help us, we may fall down, but we will never be a people to stay down.

You don't get to choose how you're going to die. Or when. You can only decide how you're going to live."