Shuttle commander called 'true American hero'
(CNN) -- Shuttle Commander Rick Husband was a "true American hero" who braved the risks of space flight in the name of science, the president of his alma mater said Saturday.
A married father of two, Husband, 45, was a colonel in the U.S. Air Force who had already been to space once, aboard space shuttle Discovery in 1999. But he was also an experienced pilot who had logged more than 3,800 hours of flight time in more than 40 types of aircraft.
Aboard Columbia, Husband carried with him a red Fresno State Bulldogs sweatshirt so he could honor the university where he earned his master's degree in mechanical engineering, California State University, Fresno.
A school spokeswoman said Husband planned to take a picture of himself wearing the sweatshirt in space and then share the picture with the university.
"Colonel Husband was a true American hero who willingly accepted the risks involved in his job as an astronaut in order to advance this country's scientific knowledge of space and flight," said the president of Fresno State, John Welty.
Dedicated and goal-oriented
After graduating from Texas Tech University in 1980, Husband went immediately into the Air Force, where he was trained on the F-4 fighter plane. He became an F-4E instructor and then a test pilot, testing the F-4 and all five models of the F-15.
Husband later became an F-15 aerial demonstration pilot, and went on an exchange with the Royal Air Force in Boscombe Down, England.
"Rick wanted to be an astronaut from the time he was in fourth grade, and he did everything he needed to do to do that," said Patty Ragan, whose family has been close friends with the Husband family for three generations in their hometown of Amarillo, Texas.
"Rick is a wonderful, God-fearing man, and comes from a family that are so proud of him," said Ragan, who attended Husband's last launch in 1999. "He was a very dedicated, goal-oriented person and ready to defend his country in any way he could."
Looked forward to mission
In a recent CNN interview, Husband said he was looking forward to the Columbia mission and said he loved flying the shuttle.
"The shuttle is a great vehicle," he said. "It is so impressive every time I sit down and study the different systems to see how well thought out this vehicle is and how well it works every time we go on flying."
It was Columbia's 28th mission. "There's still a lot of life left in the shuttle fleet," Husband said, pointing out shuttles are designed to make 100 flights, and he applauded NASA's inspectors for their work in keeping the craft safe.
"It is, I would say, a tribute to the people who work on the shuttle," he said. "They do a fantastic job in doing the inspections."
Risa and David Jones, who are best friends with Rick and his wife, said they watched Columbia fly over Lubbock, Texas Saturday morning.
"It was just a streak across the sky, and afterwards David left a message on Rick's home phone, saying 'We saw you this morning,'" Risa Jones said.