HE HAD always wanted to be an astronaut since the age of four. As the planes flew overhead, he would crane his little neck and squint his eyes into the sun wondering what it would be like to soar above the clouds.
Young Rick set his sight on the stars. Rick Husband and his brother Keith had been brought up by parents who encouraged them to follow their dreams and always told them “you can be anything you want to be.”
Early in school when the teacher would ask the children in her class what they wanted to be when they grew up, Rick, the little studious perfectionist, was always first to speak: “I want to be an astronaut.”
The other children would laugh because that was so remote from everyone out in the town of Amarillo, Texas. Normally children would dream of being ranchers, or oil men or maybe doctors but not astronauts!
At 17, Rick got his flying licence. Oh boy was he happy!
After graduating from high school with honours, he headed off to Texas Tech for further study. Because he wanted to be an astronaut, Rick wrote to NASA and asked what qualifications the agency required in pilots or mission specialists. He received a letter stating the specifications and he was using that as a road map: First he had to get a degree in either engineering, maths, biological or physical sciences and become a fighter pilot (test pilot would be an advantage) in the military and get a minimum 1,000 flying hours to qualify for the space programme. Over and above that, he would need a master’s degree in mechanical engineering to be eligible to apply.
In 1980, he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and was already in the Air Force and flying the F-4, F-4E and F-15. He married Evelyn Neely who he had known since high school in 1982. They both were Christians but did not have a deep, personal relationship with God.
Rick’s focus for NASA was intense and his wife supported him. Soon, he had done his 1,000 flying hours. Rick made his first application to NASA but was rejected. The space shuttle Challenger had just exploded in January 1986 and NASA had frozen all positions.
To be at an advantage, he became a test pilot. Rick could fly over 40 different planes. He applied again to NASA and was rejected again. At the same time, he and Evelyn were trying to start a family but she has just had two miscarriages. That caused Evelyn to draw nearer to the Lord in a way she had never done before.
Rick on the other hand, remained a nominal Christian. In 1990, Rick finished his master’s degree programme in mechanical engineering and Evelyn also got pregnant with Laura.
In March 1991, Rick filled in another NASA application and there was one question that simply asked if he had worn hard eye contact lenses. He had worn these briefly to help correct his vision and he also knew the answer NASA wanted was “no”, so that is the answer he wrote. That was not entirely honest but it is what they want to hear. He was called for a week-long interview but in the end was not accepted.
Evelyn’s faith in God was increasing and she wanted the same for her husband. He had issues that he had no fully surrendered over to God. Eventually, Rick, with the help of his wife Evelyn, also turned his life over to God completely.
He wrote: “I have finally come to a point where I have put God’s will ahead of my desire to become an astronaut. Don’t get me wrong – I still want very badly to be an astronaut, but only if it is God’s will. I wish I had come to this point earlier, but better late than never.”
His mission now was to love Jesus, be a good husband and a good father. Becoming an astronaut was no longer Rick’s greatest desire.
In 1992, Rick was chosen as the only US Air Force test pilot to come to England on an officer exchange programme. The Husbands arrived in the UK in June and Rick soon learnt to fly the Hawk, Buccaneer, Tornado GR1, Tornado GR4 and several other aircrafts. They also met a Scottish couple, also in the Air Force, who strengthened them in their love for Jesus. Rick and Evelyn believed that was why God brought them to England.
Their home was a place for prayer meetings and marriage counselling sessions in the evenings at the Air Force base. He studied the Bible like he had never done before. He wanted to have a heart relationship with Jesus. He came to know that if he had been accepted at NASA before that moment, he would not have known the Lord as he did then and could have lost his family too because he might have prioritised his job over them.
Now his order of priorities was (1) God, (2) family, (3) work. He prayed that if being an astronaut was not God’s will, He would take the desire from him. He didn’t want to pursue it unless God’s hand was covering him. His motto was: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths (Proverbs 3:5-6).”
He determined that his fulltime job was to be a spiritual leader to his family. He wanted his children to know Jesus as their Lord. He understood that if at the end of life having been an astronaut but having sacrificed his family along the way would not be worth anything.
It was at this time in his Christian journey that he decided to make a fourth application to NASA. He sat completing the form and that question about whether he had ever worn contact lenses was still there. But this time he had a problem. Because of his new-found faith, he desired to do everything to the glory of God, so he emotionally answered “yes”. He knew he was removing any possibility of being selected by NASA, but he felt as if God was telling him to trust Him. He just surrendered all to God. He agonised with God for the two hours he drove to the nearest USAF base to post the forms.
On June 4, 1993, his journal entry read: “Today is the day the USAF astronaut nomination list should come out… I am anxious to see what God’s answer is for all this.” Sure enough, Rick was on the USAF nomination list to NASA, but he had to wait to see if NASA was interested. The FBI interviewed his bosses in England and before long he received a phone call from NASA: the agency wanted him to fly to Houston for an interview.
His biggest challenge in the interview was the eye test. He failed the first time but was to be tested again the next day to be sure. He called the prayer group in England to fast and pray as he was re-tested. They did and his sight tested perfect!
Rick had stepped out in faith and put his reputation on the line to tell the truth, and God blessed him in ways he had never fathomed. Out of 3,000 applications 120 interviews, Rich was selected as one of the 19 astronauts. The family were soon packing their bags going back to Texas.
In 1998, Rick was selected to be the pilot of Space Transportation System-96 (STS-96) on the space shuttle Discovery. He would train for the next nine months for his mission. It’s always an intense training and studying with very little time even to sleep. His would be the second shuttle crew to board the then uninhabited International Space Station. The crew would transfer supplies to the space station, and a couple of astronauts would do a spacewalk so they could do some installation and repair work.
Rick applied himself as he always did, for he knew that how he performed his job and how he conducted himself reflected God. The first mission came and went. By now they had a baby boy, Matthew. Rick was still digging deeper into the Bible. He strove every day to get closer to God; that was more important than any space flight assignment.
After the Discovery mission, many people, reporters especially, would question Rick concerning the argument of science versus religion. For him, there was no conflict of interest; science only deepened his appreciation for God’s handiwork. To him, God was the ultimate Scientist: He created cells and knew how each one of them operated; He put knowledge in men and women to find cures for diseases and invent something as complex as the space shuttle. The universe, the galaxies and all that happens in space symbolised the presence God. “This just didn’t happen by chance.” It would be similar to saying the space shuttle, the most complicated flying machine in the world, just happened by chance. Behold, a cell is more complicated than the shuttle.
In September 2000, 15 months after his first mission, the science crew of the Columbia was announced: Michael Anderson, a Christian who worshipped in the same church with Rick was assigned as payload commander; Ilan Ramon, a decorated colonel in the Israel Air Force was payload specialist; David Brown, India-born Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark were mission specialists.
The flight crew were announced in December 2000: Rick was chosen to be commander – rare in NASA because pilots had to fly at least two missions before being commander – and Willie McCool as pilot. This was to be STS-107, a 16-day science mission and Columbia’s 28th and final mission since its first journey in 1981. They would focus on research in life, space and physical sciences. The experiments ranged from how to reverse osteoporosis and fight prostate cancer to how to design cancer drugs with fewer side effects and reduce pollution-causing emissions.
The crew spent nearly two and a half years together preparing for the mission. Rick continued his mission of bringing up his children for Jesus and singing in the church choir as the mission was put off a couple of times. On Sunday, January 5, 2003, their church offered to pray for Rick and Mike and their families because finally NASA had announced the date of the mission: January 16 to February 1, 2003. The two astronauts had been praying for this mission and wanted God to somehow show their faith.
The day came and everything was ready for a 10:39am lift-off. At 7:30am, before the crew headed for the launch-pad, in a rare moment, Rick paused and stood with them in a circle and prayed for the mission. At 7:52am, they entered the 18-storey-tall Columbia. Rick sat at his place and spoke to Mission Control, with the whole world listening: “The Lord has blessed us with a beautiful day here…”
He wasn’t one to hide his faith in Jesus regardless of who was listening! Soon the shuttle engines roared to life, and the countdown began, the STS-107 crew were on their way to space.
One of the NASA officials approached his family and handed the children a video cassette each and a journal for his wife. Rick had taken time to record sixteen devotionals on video tapes for each of his two children, one for each day. He wanted to lead them to Christ even while in space. There was no day to waste for Jesus. That’s how seriously he took his role as husband and father.
Today we know that on February 1, 2003, Columbia came apart over Texas at about 200,000 feet, 16 minutes from landing. No-one survived. Rick left a legacy for his family, an unwavering trust in God, regardless.
As per requirement at NASA, prior to every launch, the astronauts fill out such documents as wills, financial and personal information including loans, bank accounts, and all other details in case of death. In Rick’s packet titled “Special Instructions for Funeral Services” there’s a section called “Other Special Instructions.” He wrote: “Tell them about Jesus! – That He is real to me (Proverbs 3:5-6, Colossians 3:23).”