A nation mourns for dead astronauts

Wednesday, February 5, 2003

When a national tragedy occurs, there is a progression of thoughts and emotions: shock and dismay, grief and concern, an intense desire to know how and why, a time for mourning. It is the ability of the people of this great land to come together as each emotional stage follows its course.

While everyone wants details that will help them understand the loss of the Columbia space shuttle, it seems inappropriate to start finding fault and making accusations even before memorial services for the seven dead astronauts have been held. Clearly, it is incumbent on those who run NASA to consider every minute detail as they look for answers and seek ways to avoid whatever problems led to the swift destruction of so complex a flying machine. And that investigation began the moment the first pieces of debris were spotted on the ground in Texas.

But now is the time for honoring the dead astronauts and giving comfort to their loved ones. It is a time for sharing with each other whatever strength we possess in times like these.

As it was in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it falls on the shoulders of President Bush to speak for a nation in mourning. On such occasions, even simple words assume an elegance that soothes our fears and moderates our rage.

President Reagan rose to the occasion in 1986 when seven astronauts perished shortly after the Challenger space shuttle lifted off from its launch pad in Florida. Who can forget the eloquence of his words at a memorial service in Houston:

"Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short," Reagan said. "But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain." Reagan also promised that "man will continue his conquest of space, to reach out for new goals and greater achievements.

Those remarks were echoed as President Bush addressed the nation from the Cabinet Room shortly after last weekend's shuttle disaster:

"In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket, and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere of the Earth. These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life. Because of their courage and daring and idealism, we will miss them all the more. ...

"The cause in which they died will continue. Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on. ...

"The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth, yet we can pray that all are safely home."

It is worth noting that just last week the Columbia crew conducted a memorial service on the anniversary of the 1986 Challenger disaster. Workers at NASA centers around the nation paused for a moment of silence at 11:38 a.m. EST Jan. 28. That moment also honored the astronauts who died in the 1967 Apollo 1 fire and others who have lost their lives reaching for the stars.

As part of last week's memorial, Columbia commander Rick Husband said of those who had died: "Their dedication and devotion to the exploration of space was an inspiration for each of us and still motivates people around the world to achieve great things in service to others."

A week after that moving tribute from the shuttle in orbit around our planet, President Bush spoke at a memorial service in Houston for the Columbia astronauts. The cause for which the astronauts died will go on, said the president. And so will all our lives as we continue to unravel the mysteries whose secrets remain locked away.

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