Personal Connection

When Ken Bowersox boarded the International Space Station as its sixth incumbent skipper on 25 November 2002, he had - in a way - already flown two 'miniature space station' missions in his 15-year astronaut career. Nicknamed 'Sox' throughout the astronaut corps, he flew four highly successful Shuttle missions during the early-to-mid 1990s, two as Pilot and two as Commander, before joining the space station project as backup skipper for its first long-duration crew. Now, teamed with fellow astronaut Don Pettit and Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin, he was about to spend what he thought would be a routine four months in space.

It turned out to be almost six months, in fact, and far from routine, for halfway through Bowersox's expedition, on 1 February 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia was lost as she plummeted through the atmosphere, bound for a Florida touchdown. The news hit the station crew hard. Not only would the Shuttle fleet be grounded for more than two years as NASA sought to repair the technical - and human - faults behind the tragedy, but during this time station crews would rely on Russian Soyuz capsules to deliver them to and bring them home from the outpost. Bowersox, however, was hit particularly badly.

Only days earlier, he, Pettit and Budarin had spoken to Columbia's astronauts over two-way radio; both crews were enjoying their time aloft and having successful missions. Now, the station crew were grieving for their fallen friends. Bowersox, too, had a close personal connection with Columbia herself, for he had flown her twice during his career: once in June 1992, on his first foray into space, and again in October 1995, this time as her Commander. Both flights lasted around two weeks, giving Bowersox his first taste of what life might be like with a long-duration space station crew.

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