In Houston, a gaze fixed on space

Where an astronaut is the next-door neighbor, kids harbor NASA dreams

Cyril Alikah was busy Saturday morning working in the school robotics lab when he heard the news of Columbia's disaster. Having recently met several NASA astronauts, an eerie feeling washed over him.

That feeling has subsided, but anticipation remains. "It encouraged me to work at NASA even more," says this intense high school senior with an easy smile. "I want to make sure something like this doesn't happen again."

While the rest of the world grieves from a distance over the loss of the seven Columbia astronauts, Houston is taking it personally. This is, after all, Space City. Children grow up visiting the space center and dreaming about zero Gs. Parents bump into astronauts in supermarkets and on soccer fields. Everybody knows somebody who works at NASA.

The grief and goodwill being expressed in Houston's classrooms and barbecue joints are, of course, being played out nationwide. From Onizuku, Hawaii, to Cape Canaveral, Fla., people have shown up at planetariums and launch sites to eulogize the crew. Memorials have appeared around the shards of the shuttle spread across four states.

Tuesday, President Bush joined the families of the astronauts at the Johnson Space Center here to pay formal tribute to the fallen seven. His words and sentiments, while soothing to a nation, carry particular resonance in Houston, where teens have only to look up to see a rocket's silhouette and dream of one day journeying into the unknown.

"NASA is clearly an important part of our broader self-image. Houston is the gateway to space, but it's more of a spiritual than an economic gateway," says Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University in Houston. "That makes it much more personal to all of us."

Indeed, reminders of the city's synergistic relationship with NASA are everywhere, from street signs to car dealerships. Even the Houston Rockets basketball and Astros baseball teams are emblazoned with space names. And while most Americans remember "One small step for man" as the first words spoken on the moon, many here proudly correct them. "Houston" was actually the first word uttered upon touchdown.

Because of their proximity to such a signal institution, area schools often get a still more intimate look at NASA's workings. That breeds dreams, desires - and bitter disappointment when things go awry.

Booker T. Washington High School, considered one of the country's top engineering prep schools, is one such builder of dreams. Started 24 years ago, its focus is math and science, with a large percentage of graduates going on to work with NASA in some capacity. It the only high school in the United States that has had two science experiments taken into space by NASA astronauts.

Cyril is a typical, extraordinary student at Booker. His goal is to either design rocket engines or work with space robotics for NASA. He spent last summer working on the X-38 escape pod as part of the space agency's internship program and, next fall, will likely attend Philadelphia's Drexel University, one of the nation's best engineering schools. He thinks back on his summer at NASA in light of Saturday's accident. "They stress safety like crazy. You get kind of frustrated by it, but now I understand the reason for it," he says. "When I get there, I'm going to be hard-core about safety."

He says he and his friends continue to speculate about the loss of Columbia, whether it was caused by age, inadequate maintenance, or lack of funding. Nodding in agreement on the last point, classmate Virgil Gamble believes that NASA doesn't have enough money to do its job. "When I was a kid, I used to take trips to the Johnson Space Center with my family," he says. "I really wanted to be an astronaut." So he applied to Booker. But in his first year at the Houston magnet school, he saw the handwriting on the wall: budget cuts at NASA meant less opportunity for young people like him.

"I did my research. I looked at those budget cuts and the way the economy was going, and I knew that was going to be a tough road," says Virgil, a chunky silver cross hanging from his neck. "It was kind of depressing."

Now his goal is to get a college degree in mechanical engineering and go into the private sector. But news of Columbia still hurt, coming amid lingering dreams of space.

Because they feel such a personal connection to NASA, many students here are hurting, says Bob Brienzo, a teacher at Booker. But he's surprised at how few want to talk about it. "I think it's still so surreal. It's not like Challenger, which blew up right in front of our eyes," he says. "This fell from the sky in beautiful streaks."

PART of the stoicism may be that, since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, bad news has come in waves. The other part may be the kids' inability to cope with a disaster so close to home. "Houston has such close ties with NASA. It's the first thing you know about the city," says Mr. Brienzo. "And it's incredibly ironic that the shuttle literally came fluttering down over our own skies. That makes it all the more personal."

Because of the debris's danger, some Texas schools weren't able to begin the grieving process Monday. This weekend, Gov. Rick Perry instructed administrators in a 93-county area to keep facilities closed until they'd been cleared of debris.

Outside Texas, many students weren't even aware of Columbia's 16-day mission until the accident occurred. That is not surprising, says Dr. Klineberg. "NASA has been fading from pubic attention in recent years as less and less money is provided," he says. "I think this has reminded us of how incredibly important space travel is ... and what extraordinary human beings these astronauts are."

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