Boro reacts with shock, grief at shuttle disaster

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When seconds turned to minutes Saturday morning as the space shuttle Columbia failed to appear on time for its landing in Florida, Dr. Uma Mysorekar was watching.

Mysorekar, the president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America in Flushing, had been sitting with members of her congregation at the Bowne Street temple to watch Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-born female astronaut, in what was supposed to be her second triumphant return to Earth.

They watched instead in confusion as news of lost radio contact gave way to images of the shuttle’s smoky trail across the Texas sky.

“This tragic disaster was not only shocking to us, but we were in a state of daze,” Mysorekar said Monday, two days after the shuttle broke apart in its re-entry into the atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts. “Everybody was watching the television to see how it would land. As the reality came much closer, we came to fear the worst. Our prayers were with them.”

Although the shuttle’s loss thrust back into the spotlight a space program that has become almost routine for most Americans, for many Queens communities Columbia’s flight was already the focus of eager anticipation long before its disastrous end.

Chawla was not the only object of attention. Ilan Ramon, an Israeli fighter pilot, flew aboard Columbia as the first astronaut from the Jewish state, a milestone that had heightened security and expectations for the mission.

“He was a real inspiration for the Jewish community the whole world over, particularly in the troubled times Israel is going through,” said Jonathan Rubin, the president of the congregation at the Bayside Jewish Center. “He exemplified the true spirit of Israel for Jews all over the world.”

The Indian community regarded Chawla in much the same light.

“She obviously was a mentor for many,” Mysorekar said. “She brought glory to so many people — youngsters, women, everybody.”

The American space program has close ties to Queens by way of former Borough President Claire Shulman, whose daughter Ellen Baker flew into space on three shuttle missions between 1985 and 1995 — including one two-week stint aboard Columbia in 1992.

Reached at her home Monday, Shulman’s comments were brief and heartfelt.

“I have one reaction: I feel terribly sorry for the families,” Shulman said.

She said her daughter was unreachable, and even Shulman had not spoken to her since the shuttle disaster.

As the nation mourned Tuesday with a service at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, many spiritual leaders in Queens were still assessing how to respond to the tragedy.

“Right now, frankly, I think people are so in shock, it’s almost reliving 9/11 and the Challenger,” said Jan Fenster, the president of the Queens Jewish Community Council. “People just have to come back to themselves before they plan what action to take.”

But some services have already been planned — like at the Sikh Temple Society in Richmond Hill, which will honor the astronauts Sunday between 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.

Others have already held observances. Only hours after watching the disaster unfold, 200 people attended a service Saturday night at the Hindu Temple Society for Chawla and the other astronauts.

“Hindu tradition and philosophy tells us that she is just like the other six,” Mysorekar said. “They are all saved.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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