My husband and I went on our first date 14 years ago today. We had officially met the week before at church, and what ensued was a whirlwind romance that I never saw coming. Kris had moved to Orlando in April to start a new job. We’ve spent the last 14 years growing closer but there was one area of Kris I never really knew until last week. This will be a different kind of post for me, but bare with me as I geek out a little over my husband because we both learned a lesson this week that changed the way I see our life.
Previous to his job in Orlando, Kris was a contractor for NASA. Yep. You read that right. After graduating from Georgia Tech in 2000, he took a job as an Industrial Engineer on the Space Shuttle Program. I’ve always been impressed by it, but truthfully, I didn’t know much about it.
This past week, our family did a staycation, visiting some Central Florida spots, including Kennedy Space Center. Kris hadn’t been back since he left in 2004. I hadn’t been since fifth grade. We were so excited to introduce our kids to a place that was pivotal to both of us: Kris because of his job; me because I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s watching shuttles and rockets take off on my TV then running outside to watch them blaze across the Florida sky.
Kris decided we should go in order: Rocket Garden which had the earliest test rockets and manned rockets that orbited the earth, then the Saturn V center (the moon missions) and finish with the Space Shuttle exhibit.
There’s a bus tour that takes you around the launch pads and various restricted areas. As we drove by the famous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB for short), Kris pointed out his old office – in the shadow of the VAB (geek out moment!).
Watching our kids take in the wonder of it all was amazing. After lunch, we readied ourselves for the Shuttle experience. If you’re ever in Central Florida, this is worth the trip. As you walk into the building, the walls are lined with quotes from various people who worked in the shuttle program talking about the greatness of the program and the greatness of the people who worked on it. This is where my wife pride began swelling. I said, “Kris. These are about you! You were part of this!”
The pre-movie leads you to one of the greatest reveals I’ve seen in entertainment. (Goosebumps!) And there she was: Atlantis. Seeing this orbiter (as Kris tells me it’s really called) up close was amazing. We snapped a bunch of pictures, then I remembered I had posted some photos of Kris from his Space Center days on Facebook years ago. I quickly pulled them up, and y’all, they were photos of Kris standing in front of Atlantis right after it landed from a mission in 2002. I excitedly showed my kids and couldn’t stop exclaiming, “This is your daddy standing under THAT exact shuttle when it had JUST returned from space.” I don’t think they were as excited as I was.
We explored the exhibit, and I loved hearing the “sonic boom.” Growing up, I remember hearing this familiar double boom often as the orbiters re-entered earth’s atmosphere. It would often catch us off guard and make us jump as walls rattled in our house, but it was always a comforting sound. The orbiter was coming home. We walked up to this wall “From the Runway to the Launch Pad.” This was Kris’ job: helping streamline the processes that readied the orbiters for their next launch. I asked him a gagillion questions about what kind of projects he did. He recognized old co-workers in pictures and on videos.
Then it was time. If you know about shuttle history and have realized Kris worked there from 2000-2004, that meant he was there during the Columbia tragedy.
On the morning of February 1, 2003, Columbia readied for its return to Kennedy Space Center, but it never made it. As it entered earth’s atmosphere over the state of Texas, the shuttle broke apart, killing all seven astronauts on board. As a native Floridian, it was devastating. Pieces of the shuttle were found for hundreds of miles. They were collected and brought back to Kennedy Space Center. While many touched the shuttles, few were allowed to be where these pieces were kept. Kris was one. His team helped design the process for cataloging and analyzing the pieces. It was a really hard time for him. But the piece he remembers most were the windows. Behind those windows were seven astronauts, looking out, minutes from landing, eager to get home. That was what they last saw.
We entered the memorial for the Challenger and Columbia astronauts. First you walk through a hallway lined with memorabilia from each of the 14 astronauts who lost their lives. We took time at each one, remembering these were real people with real families who lost their lives.
Then we turned the corner, and Kris fell to his knees. Before him stood a piece of the Challenger: part of the body of the shuttle and a piece of Columbia: the windows of the orbiter.
Here they were again: the windows. I had no words. This was a part of my husband I hadn’t really known. What memories of those days it must have brought back: the pain, the loss, the questions, the unknown. Tears filled my eyes. I placed my hand on his shoulder as he cried. It was all I knew to do. After a few minutes, we moved on. Emotionally rocked. As we stood outside the memorial, looking at the pictures of each orbiter, Kris spoke a truth that rocked me to my core: “Erin, if Columbia hadn’t been lost, I wouldn’t have left my job. I wouldn’t have moved to Orlando. I wouldn’t have met you.”
After the Columbia tragedy, the shuttles stopped flying. During that first year, they weren’t sure if they would ever fly again. (They did eventually – 22 missions from 2006 until the program retired in 2011). But when your job is to help process the orbiter after flight, and there are no flights, your future is uncertain. At 26, Kris had too much career ahead of him to wait. So he found a job… in Orlando. He asked a friend what the biggest church in Orlando was. His friend told him First Baptist Orlando. That’s how Kris ended up there. Within a couple months of being there, we met (literally) in the pews of the Worship Center. We went on our first date and couldn’t leave each other’s side. It wasn’t the story I thought I’d have; it was better. We were married 51 weeks later on July 9, 2005.
That February morning in 2003, I watched the news of the shuttle on TV. I had no clue what that tragedy would mean for me. I had no idea my life changed that morning. I had no idea that 60 min away, a 26 year old man working at Kennedy Space Center was even more greatly affected. I had no idea that the awful, horrific, tragedy would bring me the greatest gift.
Suffering is horrible. It’s tragic. It’s uncomfortable. But it’s not always the end. Something beautiful really can come from something horrible. Ours is just one story. I think back to all the big tragedies of my lifetime: 9/11, Katrina, and so many others. How many other lives were unknowingly affected by those? I thought of our life over the last two and a half years. It was two years ago this week that Kris was in the hospital, that our life took another one of those sharp, unexpected turns. These have been hard years. I haven’t been shy about that. But they have been beautiful years too. We are not the same. God has grown us, deepened us, refined us.
This week was a reminder to shift my perspective in the tragedy. To see the possibilities. To see the hope. It’s not easy in the moment, but it’s worth fighting for.
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.
Isaiah 61:1-3 (NIV)