HOUSTON — Slowly, astronaut Rick Husband worked the rust off the roof of his Camaro, wearing a drenched T-shirt outside his home near the Johnson Space Center. Next came the copper-colored hood, soon so shiny it would blind you if the sun caught it right. He turned it into a mean muscle car, drove it for a while, even gunned the engine once or twice for friends.
Then he gave it to his pastor to raise money for his church.
Months before astronaut Laurel Clark strapped in to a seat on Columbia and shoved off for the stars, NASA gave her a set of cameras to capture images of space. Go practice, they told her, and she did -- taking photos of neighborhood children bobbing for apples at a Halloween party, then making copies for friends in her moms' club.
Astronauts have always worn a certain humility -- a trained humility best embodied in the words Neil A. Armstrong spoke upon setting foot on the moon: "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
In NASA's early days, though, beyond their hero status, many of the astronauts were a rugged, rowdy bunch -- hard-working, hard-drinking mavericks and jet jockeys.
The space cowboy is gone.
The seven crew members who died when Columbia broke apart Saturday morning over Texas were part of a new breed.
Several had extensive experience flying military jets, but they were technically skilled bookworms at heart, scientists first and pilots second. The bulk of their training was in engineering, medicine and computers, and the vehicle they flew was not a rocket, but a soaring laboratory.
The nation's space program was once dominated by white men. No longer. The Columbia crew was a diverse collection of men and women from three countries.
They sang in church choirs. Pilot Willie McCool was a former Eagle Scout who loved to play chess. Not long before Columbia lifted off, neighbors ran into Clark at the Kroger's grocery store a couple of miles from NASA headquarters, buying milk.
"In the '60s, they were like rock stars. Not anymore," said Deanna Eaton, who lives in Webster, Texas, near the Johnson Space Center. She sang in the Grace Community Church choir with Husband, a baritone, for a year before she learned he was an astronaut -- who would become the commander of the space shuttle Columbia.
"You would have never known who they were if you didn't ask," Eaton said.
Once in a while, young astronauts around Houston went to the Outpost Tavern, a dark, sagging World War II barracks-turned-bar off NASA Road 1. For generations, it had been a favorite watering hole in the space community.
But these days, the "kids" come in mostly for organized parties announcing the members of a new crew, just for tradition's sake. Many drink Diet Coke and leave early, heading home to families. Combined, the seven men and women aboard Columbia had 12 children.
"During the splashdown days, when a mission was over, NASA Road was just about closed down, the party was so big," said Sharon Aden, who owns the Outpost with her husband, Stan. "Now, you maybe don't even know a mission has ended."
The change is also evident at a barbecue joint called Fat Boys that sits along the main drag in Cape Canaveral, Fla., where Columbia was supposed to land Saturday. In the Mercury and Apollo days, astronauts used to pre-order racks of ribs and pitchers of beer so the refreshments would be waiting for them when they pulled up. Today, the proprietor says, "they're all vegetarians."
In short, Houstonians said proudly as they mourned the deaths of Columbia's crew members Sunday, they were squares.
"They were common as dirt," said Carl Lawrence, a Boeing engineer who works on the International Space Station and whose daughters often played with Clark's 8-year-old son. "This was like an oasis for them. To the community, even with all these astronauts walking around here, it's nothing after a while. It's just like any other job. They just happen to go into space."
In its early years, Johnson Space Center, like Edwards Air Force Base outside Los Angeles, was an unbearably hot wasteland that lured brash pilots with the promise of fast jets, outer space and danger, and left their families to languish in shoddy government housing with no air conditioning. Periodically, some of their wives packed up the kids and left, unable to bear the weather, the loneliness and the ever-present specter of death.
NASA worried even in its earliest days about the hard-living reputation of many test pilots who became astronauts. Space pioneer John Glenn once scolded young colleagues to live up to the image of an astronaut demanded by the public. Part of the change over the last 10 or 15 years is the result of conscious image-building by the agency.