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NASA pays tribute to fallen astronauts near 20th anniversary of Space Shuttle Columbia disaster

Nearly 20 years ago, seven astronauts lost their lives when the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed while returning to Earth.

February will mark the 20th anniversary of the space shuttle Columbia tragedy, and, as the anniversary nears, NASA has taken a moment to pay tribute to the men and women who gave their lives trying to reach the stars.

“It’s a sad day, but it is a day for us to remember not only these wonderful people, and to remember them as the vibrant people that they were, but also for us to remember the lessons," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said.

On Feb. 1, 2003, astronauts William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, Ilan Ramon and commander Rick Husband all died when the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded over Dallas, Texas, while returning to Earth.

Space Shuttle Columbia
The crew of Space Shuttle Columbia's mission STS-107. The Space Shuttle broke up over Texas during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. NASA via Getty Images

Husband’s widow, Evelyn Husband Thompson, told TODAY that Rick Husband's death has been very "tough" on everyone in the family, including his now-grown kids, Laura and Matthew.

"Every time Laura and Matthew have a milestone in their life. It breaks my heart Rick’s not there to share that, it really does," she said.

Laura Husband added that the past 20 years have also been a "parallel train track of joy and grief" for her.

Anderson’s daughter, Kaycee Anderson, said that she also still feels the sting of losing her father, but she tries her best to remain positive.

“I think about my dad every day, but it’s not always a sad, a sad day or a sad thought," she said.

The Columbia disaster followed two other major fatal accidents involving NASA crews. In 1967, the three members of Apollo 1 died when a fire broke out in their space capsule. The Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, killing the seven crew members aboard. In all three accidents, investigators found human error played a role.

Crew Of Apollo I: Grissom, White, And Chaffee
Crew of Apollo I: Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee. The three died on Jan. 27, 1967, when a fire broke out in their space capsule.Getty Images

Russ DeLoach, NASA’s chief of safety and mission assurance, said what the crews of each mission accomplished would not be forgotten.

“We must not let the lessons of Apollo one Challenger and Columbia show up in another investigation report,” he said.

As for Evelyn Husband Thompson, she said she chooses to remember her late husband and his crew in a different way.

“They were very accomplished people that they were so much more than just astronauts," she said. "They were moms and dads and husbands and they lived a very balanced loving life with their families here in Houston. And so that’s the memory that I want to remain.”