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Shuttle Disaster

Mourn, but move ahead, Bush urges

By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 5, 2003


SPACE CENTER, Houston -- The longing to soar beyond all that is familiar cannot be broken despite broken hearts, President Bush told mourners during a chilly outdoor memorial service Tuesday for the seven astronauts who died on the space shuttle Columbia.

"It is a desire written in the human heart," Bush said before a throng of more than 10,000 at NASA headquarters. "We are that part of creation which seeks to understand all creation."

Christian hymns and Hebrew prayers were part of the hourlong service that drew NASA employees, contractors, relatives and friends of the astronauts who died Saturday when Columbia broke up over Texas.

It was an intensely personal tribute, full of stories about the astronauts' whims and words. It dwelled on their love of family and flying high. It sought to measure what they contributed to space exploration and what it cost them.

"They go in peace for all mankind, and all mankind is in their debt," Bush said.

After coming so far, the crew had so little left to go, Bush noted, bringing some family members to tears. Columbia was due to touch down at Cape Canaveral 16 minutes before it exploded over Texas.

"Their mission was almost complete," Bush said, "and we lost them so close to home."

The resolve to travel through space is strengthened, not weakened, by the acute loss, he said.

As he spoke, federal officials a hundred miles north were coping with new discoveries of debris that showered across a vast swath of land from California to Louisiana. Thousands of pieces, primarily in Texas, have been found.

The seven astronauts killed Saturday were:

Laurel Clark, mission specialist. She had different pastel shirts and a perpetual smile, Bush said. "Life continues in a lot of places, and life is a magical thing," she once said.

Lt. Col. Michael Anderson, payload commander. "He was the quiet type, unless you asked him about his family or Porsche," Bush said.

Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist. When the sad news reached her hometown, recalled Capt. Kent Rominger, chief of the astronaut corps, her high school administrator remembered she "always said she wanted to reach the stars."

Capt. David Brown, mission specialist. As a little boy with a telescope, he dreamed of being an astronaut but thought they were all movie stars, Rominger said. "I thought I was a normal kid," Brown had told him.

Cmdr. William McCool, pilot. "Incredibly humble with exceptional talent," Bush said. "Uncharacteristically punctual for an astronaut." Over several years, he was late to work only once.

Col. Richard Husband, commander. "A terrific human being and a great leader," Bush said. A favorite scripture: "Do not be terrified, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go."

Ilan Ramon, payload specialist. The Israeli son of Holocaust survivors, Ramon had told Rominger: "The quiet that envelops space makes the beauty even more powerful, and I hope the quiet will one day spread to my country."

Outside NASA's gate, passersby laid balloons and roses still wrapped in plastic, personal notes and general messages of hope and grief. U.S. flags hung from the chain-link fence that surrounds the perimeter, and an Israeli flag was nestled among the mementos.

An hour before the service, two men wearing traditional Jewish skullcaps and Hebrew letters written on their vests trudged north along NASA Road 1 toward the center.

Having donned a wool poncho, Hope Underwood also trekked to NASA on Tuesday to read the notes left behind. Underwood said her son attends the same private school, St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal, as the son of Clark.

Underwood drove her 4-year-old son to school Monday and found it shuttered.

"I felt irritated until I learned why it had been closed," said Underwood, a technical writer and resident of Webster who used to work at NASA. "Then, I was ashamed I was annoyed."

Bush, at one point, spoke to some of the youngest in the audience.

"To the children who miss your mom or dad, you need to know they love you and that love will always be with you," he said. "They were proud of you, and you can be proud of them for the rest of your life."

In honor of Ramon, Rabbi Harold Robinson, of the chaplain corps, gave a short invocation, referring to God throughout.

"You are the fountain from which our healing grows," Robinson said.

Betsy Walker said the multiple spiritual references were comforting. Although not Jewish, she said she appreciated that Hebrew was included, given Ramon's faith.

"I think that's not only acceptable, but necessary here," said Walker, a NASA subcontractor and acquaintance of Chawla's husband.

NASA engineer Howard Wagner had met a few astronauts who died in the Challenger explosion. The Columbia disaster brought back the old, searing feeling of loss, he said, even though he never knew that crew.

"It's about the same -- so abrupt, no warning," he said. "It doesn't get any easier."

The extended NASA family numbers 17,000, including staff, contractors and subcontractors, Wagner said.

"We all want to go explore space ourselves," he said. "This is as close as we get."

The astronauts were celebrities at NASA, and their sightings were noted.

"You see them in the hallway, you see them in the elevators," said Johanne Blanchet, a NASA contractor in robotics. "You see them every day, so it touches you."

At the close of the service, thousands stood. A bell clanged seven times, marking a custom upon arrival and departure at the space station that is based on an English nautical tradition.

Four sleek, white NASA T-38's took flight, thundering overhead in tight formation. Three of the aircraft dipped, and the fourth shot high into the blue sky, alone, free.

"Man, you are training to fly in space," Chawla used to scold her fellow comrades when they complained. "What more would you want?"

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