When Sean O’Keefe became NASA Administrator in 2001, he never imagined he’d be leading the space agency through one of its darkest periods.

It was February 1, 2003 when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up after a failed re-entry in the earth’s atmosphere. All seven astronauts on board were killed.

“I was with the families of all of the astronaut crewmembers of the Columbia at the Kennedy Space Center right there at the landing strip and the countdown was occurring” recalls O’Keefe. “There’s a usual tell-tale sign that right prior to the landing you can hear two sonic booms which is the speed of the orbiter moving through the sound barrier and landing within a minute and a half thereafter and you could see it land, and when the sonic booms didn’t show up it was pretty evident that this was going to be a really challenging day.”

O’Keefe says families were immediately moved to the center’s crew quarters, where he was able to visit with them throughout the day and share the latest information.

“The courage that they demonstrated that day became the source of resolve thereafter that all of us throughout the agency, throughout NASA, relied upon as a way to continually encourage us to do what they admonished us to do which was to find out what happened, go fix it, and then rededicate ourselves to the very objectives in which their loved ones had given their lives for” he adds.

O’Keefe left NASA in 2005 but says he has stayed in contact with the Columbia families ever since the tragedy.

He now teaches at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.