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THE COLUMBIA TRAGEDY

Religious aspects

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The crew of the Columbia:

From the left: David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, William McCool and Ilan Ramon

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Thoughts bearing some relationship to the tragedy:

"No one can destroy the imperishable spirit." Bhagavad-Gita, Chapter 2 (Hindu holy text)

"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die..." Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3, (Hebrew Scriptures)

"There are people whose radiance illuminates their memories;
When they themselves are no longer in our midst;
These lights that cause the darkest night to shine;
They -- they light the way for humanity.
" Cantor Janice Roger, Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation. 1

"In an era of darkness and terror, you gave us hope. In a decade of uncertainty you lit a path to the future. Godspeed to NASA and the crew of Columbia." Jason Rhian, posting to a memorial page of RockyMountainNews.com 2

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Seven brave astronauts on the Columbia space shuttle died on Saturday, 2003-FEB-1 at about 8:59 CT, as their craft re-entered the earth's atmosphere. The tragedy captured the attention of the world. It stopped future shuttle flights until 2005-JUL while experts found ways of preventing a recurrence.

A little known factor in the crew makeup was the extreme diversity of their spiritual paths. In alphabetic order, they were:

bulletMichael Anderson was a conservative Christian, a member of Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Spokane WA who also attended Grace Community Church in Clear Lake, TX. He had once said that his ultimate destination is Heaven. He said: "Don't worry if I'm not coming back. I'm just going higher." One of his parents commented: "I can feel sure that, by him being a Christian man, he is in a better place than where he would be on Earth." The implication is that most of the rest of the crew -- the five who were not conservative Christians -- would be in Hell rather than Heaven. 2
bulletDavid Brown was a Christian Episcopalian, an acolyte at his parish in Arlington, VA. An acolyte is a lay volunteer who helps in some ceremonial duties. Rev. Jennings Hobson of Trinity Episcopal Church recalled a presentation that Brown had given to the church's men's group. "He made a wonderful presentation. I saw a truly happy, passionate caring person."
bulletKalpana Chawla was a Hindu whose ancestors were Sikhs. She attended Hindu temples in California and Texas. She arranged tours for some children of Northern India near her birthplace to come to the U.S. and see some aspects of the space program. An integral part of the Hindu faith is the belief in Transmigration of the Soul: that after death one returns to earth in the body of a human or other animal to live out another lifetime.
bulletLaurel Clark was a Unitarian Universalist, an active member of Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church in Racine WI. A reporter for the Journal Sentinel newspaper (Milwaukee WI) commented: "To many, Clark embodied the ideals of the Unitarian Universalist faith, a religion that welcomes all beliefs and spiritual traditions and emphasizes peace and social justice. They pointed to the diversity of those who served on the Columbia mission and her hopes that the scientific experiments that were conducted onboard would benefit the whole of mankind." 3
bulletRick Husband was a Charismatic Christian, an active member of the Grace Community Church in Clear Lake, TX -- a charismatic congregation. He had brought objects with him on the flight which he had hoped to deliver later to a Christian children's home near Amarillo, TX, to James Dobson's Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, CO, and to Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network in Virginia Beach, VA.
bulletWilliam McCool was raised a Methodist but converted to Roman Catholicism as an adult. He was an outstanding athlete and student, a gifted flier, and a deeply committed Christian. On FEB-2,  Rev. Chris Kulig of St. Bernadette Roman Catholic Church in Houston TX described McCool and his fellow crew members as men and women who "did not let the fear of death prevent them from achieving."
bulletIlan Ramon was an observant Jew, from Israel -- the only non-American on the crew. He was the son of a Holocaust survivor. He took several Holocaust objects on the flight: a Torah which had been used at a Bar Mitzvah ceremony in a Nazi concentration camp, and a drawing titled "Moon Landing" by a 14 year old boy who had died at Auschwitz.

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What might the astronauts have anticipated after life?

Although it is not possible to find out the precise understanding that each astronaut had about life after death, their faith groups taught a range of beliefs, including Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, Transmigration of the Soul, and annihilation of the personality: 

bulletConservative Christianity generally teaches that those who are saved by repenting of their sins and accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior will attain heaven after death. In contrast, the unsaved -- including most of the Shuttle's crew -- will spend eternity in Hell. In the past, conservative Christians have viewed Hell as place of eternal, horrendous pain. Many conservative denominations are transitioning to a belief in Hell as a place or state of isolation from God.
bulletThe Episcopal church is one of the more liberal Christian denominations. Their members generally view neither Heaven nor Hell as physical places. Rather, heaven is a relationship with God, and Hell is alienation from God. 4 The Episcopal Catechism states: "By heaven, we mean eternal life in our enjoyment of God; by hell, we mean eternal death in our rejection of God." 5
bulletHindus believe in the repetitious Transmigration of the Soul. This is the transfer of one's soul after death into another body. This is one step in samsara, a continuing cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth through many lifetimes. Through pure acts, thoughts and devotion, one can be reborn at a higher level. Eventually, one can escape samsara and achieve enlightenment. Bad deeds can cause a person to be reborn as a lower level, or even as an animal.
bulletUnitarian Universalists are essentially unique among organized Western religions. They do not have a formal belief systems to which their membership must agree. Rather they look upon their organization's role as providing some of the tools by which their members can develop their own evolving spiritual path. Most Unitarians are Humanists. As such they have no expectation of one's personality continuing in any form after death.
bulletRoman Catholicism teaches that almost everyone goes either to Hell or Purgatory after death. A very few will go directly to Heaven. Most of those whose major sins have been forgiven through church ritual will go to Purgatory for a process of cleansing after death; later, they will be allowed into Heaven. Most of the rest will go directly to punishment in Hell, which is considered a place and a state of existence. The church teaches that religions other than Christianity are considered to be "gravely deficient." Their rituals can constitute "an obstacle to salvation" for their followers. More details.
bulletMost traditions within Judaism has no precise view of life after death. However, Jews believe that one's influences do continue after we die. "Judaism teaches us that our soul lives on through the memories of people who knew and loved us. Every life well-lived lives on for blessing." 2

The seven crew members had five conflicting expectations of what their future would be like after death.  Only one -- or perhaps none -- of the five scenarios is correct. Of course, it could be possible that the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein is correct. In a novel, he suggested that people are given exactly the form of life after death that they believe in.

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They are in Hell, according to The Space Shuttle Columbia Gospel Memorial:

According to Bart McQueary, a conservative Christian, the entire crew of the Columbia are currently suffering in Hell. 7 He reasoned that because they did not use their position to advocate for major change in American culture to return to biblical principles, they were destined to go to Hell. He writes in an essay on his web site: "Those seven have a duty to declare 'It is not right what this nation has become. We can no longer stand silently by while our President sends a blatant homosexual to Romania and his lover as our ambassador. I cannot be silent while we appoint a homosexual to screen all Pentagon job applicants. We do not condone allowing out of the closet, in your face, homosexuals to serve in the military. We oppose this and although we work for the United States, we do not agree with our governments actions on this matter. It is in contradiction to God's Law. Thank you'....Therefore, these seven are in Hell. All the candlelight vigils and Supreme Court decisions cannot change that. It cannot get them one day taken off their sentences or buy them a drop of water to cool their tongue."

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The tragedy was is a Jewish plot, etc:

The ADL (Anti-Defamation League) quoted a number of comments by conservative Muslims who interpreted the disaster along religious lines. They appeared to focus their attention on the sole Jewish member of the crew, Colonel Ilan Ramon -- a son of Holocaust survivors:

bulletDr. Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Rantisi, a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, is reported as saying: "The explosion of the shuttle Columbia is, it is reasonable to assume, part of the divine punishment of America and, together with it, Zionism - because of their massacres of Muslims, the destruction of their lives, the humiliation of their honor, and their desire to globalize corruption..."
bulletHamed Salamin, a columnist for the UAE daily Al-Bayan, allegedly wrote: "An atmosphere of sadness and shock overcame the Israelis two days ago when NASA announced [Ramon's] death… This is enough to arouse joy in every heart that beats Arabism and Islam....Perhaps the sight of the Columbia shuttle's crashing in the town of Palestine, Texas reminds the Israeli people of the daily tragedy of the Palestinians - of the sorrow, the blood, and the massacres that the army of the [Zionist] entity carries out on the occupied lands. But it would not appear that the vast majority of Israelis have feelings for others… The Columbia disaster is a loss to all, even though emotions are conflicting. Sincerest condolences to the American people and to the families of the six American astronauts, and Ramon should go to hell. There is no sorrow for him whatsoever."
bulletAbu Hamza Al-Masri, an Islamic fundamentalist leader, was interviewed by Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, a London Arabic-language daily newspaper. He is quoted as saying: "It is a punishment from Allah - this is how Muslims see the incident. The target of this event was the trinity of evil, as the shuttle carried Americans, an Israeli, and a Hindu, the trinity of evil against Islam. This is a message to the American people that Bush's term is nothing but a string of curses cast upon them, and that it will lead to the exhaustion of their resources and the elimination of the false American dream....This is a divine message to the Israelis, saying that they are not welcome in space." 8

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References:

  1. Michele McNeil Solida & Tim Evans, "Faithful lift Columbia in prayer," Indianapolis Star, 2003-FEB-3, at:  http://www.indystar.com/library/
  2. "In memory: Remembering the crew of the space shuttle Columbia," RockyMountainNews.com, at: http://cfapp.rockymountainnews.com/
  3. "Seven Heroes, seven faiths," Toronto Star, Toronto ON, 2003-FEB-9, Pages F6 & F7. Extracted from an essay on Beliefnet at: http://www.beliefnet.com/
  4. "What do you believe happens after death?," Episcopal Life forum, at: http://www.episcopalchurch.org
  5. "The Book of Common Prayer" of the Episcopal Church (pages 845-862), as quoted in "An Outline of the Faith," at: http://www.episcopalchurch.org
  6. "In memory: Remembering the crew of the space shuttle Columbia," RockyMountainNews.com, at: http://cfapp.rockymountainnews.com/
  7. Bart McQueary, "The Space Shuttle Columbia Gospel Memorial," God Hates Harrodsburg, at: http://www.bartmcqueary.com/columbiainhell.html
  8. "Conspiracy and Columbia," ADL, at: http://www.adl.org/

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Copyright © 2003 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-FEB-12
Latest update: 2005-SEP-19
Author: B.A. Robinson

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