Bush - 'Space program will go on'

Wednesday, February 5, 2003

SPACE CENTER, Houston -- Under sapphire blue skies that once held Columbia and her crew, President Bush paid tribute Tuesday to the shuttle's seven astronauts and rededicated the nation to space travel. "They go in peace for all mankind. And all mankind is in their debt," he said.

The president joined at least 10,000 teary-eyed NASA workers, aging astronauts, political leaders and families of the fallen crew for a memorial service in a plaza outside Mission Control usually reserved for celebrations of space triumphs.

The shuttle broke up Saturday as it was returning to Earth. In Bush's words: "Their mission was almost complete, and we lost them so close to home."

The president met with family members after the service, which ended with the ringing of a Navy bell -- seven times, one for each of the deceased astronauts -- and a "missing man" formation flyover: four T-38 NASA jets roared above the crowd, with one peeling away and soaring high and out of sight.

Bush bowed his head and first lady Laura Bush wiped tears from her eyes as the United States Navy Band Sea Chanters led the crowd in song. The words to one hymn, "God of Our Fathers, Whose Almighty Hand," were printed on the back of the service's programs, allowing the NASA family to raise its voice in tribute to "shining worlds in splendor through the skies."

'Grief overwhelming'

Leading the crowd in prayer, Harold Robinson, a captain in the Navy's Chaplain Corps, said the astronauts found true humility while viewing "our little planet from outer space."

Fighting back tears, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe then declared, "Today, our grief is overwhelming."

He promised to find out why Columbia broke apart, correct the problem and make sure it never happens again. To the families of those lost, he said: "We will keep this solemn pledge."

Bush recalled that Navy Capt. David Brown, a medical doctor aboard Columbia, was asked several weeks ago by his brother what would happen if something went wrong with the mission. "This program will go on," the 46-year-old Navy flight surgeon replied.

"Capt. Brown was correct," Bush said. "America's space program will go on."

Earlier, aides said the president supports continuing the shuttle program, despite criticism by some.

At the Johnson Space Center, crew members were remembered in separate eulogies that shared with the world their nicknames, habits, likes and dislikes and, in many cases, their near-last words.

O'Keefe recalled that mission specialist Kalpana Chawla, 41, told Mission Control how beautiful the Earth looked from miles above as she summoned her fellow crew members to the shuttle window, where the world was reflected in her eye.

"It is this image, the image of Columbia's crew joyfully joining Kalpana to see our beautiful planet reflected in their friend's eye, that we will remember and treasure forever," O'Keefe said, his voice cracking.

The president spoke briefly about each astronaut as their smiling faces looked down from a picture of the crew placed on stage.

Chawla, a native of India, wanted to reach for the stars, Bush said, and "she went there and beyond."

Col. Ilan Ramon, 48, son of a Holocaust survivor and Israel's first space traveler, spoke of the quiet of space and was quoted by Bush as saying, "I only hope that the quiet can one day spread to my country."

Navy flight surgeon Laurel Clark, 41, liked to say, "Life continues in a lot of places."

Air Force Col. Rick Husband, the shuttle commander, 45, loved the hymn "How Great Thou Art," which includes the phrase: "I see the stars. I hear the mighty thunder. Thy power throughout the universe displayed."

Columbia pilot William McCool, 41, was a former Eagle Scout and "fearless test pilot," Bush said.

And, finally, payload commander Michael Anderson, 43, who Bush said recently told his pastor, "If this thing doesn't come out right, don't worry about me; I'm just going on higher."

Blessed nation

"Our whole nation was blessed to have such men and women serving in our space program," Bush said.

"This cause of exploration and discovery is not an option we choose; it is a desire written in the human heart," the president said. "We find the best among us, send them forth into unmapped darkness, and pray they will return. They go in peace for all mankind, and all mankind is in their debt."

"Yet, some explorers do not return. And the loss settles unfairly on a few," he said.

"The people of NASA are being tested again."

Afterward, in his private meeting with family members, Bush told them, "I"m sorry that we have to meet under these circumstances. God bless you all."

The president and first lady were accompanied on Air Force One by astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon. Former senator and astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the world, and his wife, Annie, also were aboard.

"He's the leader of our country, and his being here wasn't necessary. But it does show we are mourning," said Rochelle Pritchard, a NASA contract worker who helps manufacture robotic flight-control gear.

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