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Feb. 8, 2003, 10:19AM

Bush Pays Tribute

Bush says, "space program will go on."
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

Photo: AP

With the ground and sky providing painful reminders, President Bush led the nation today in a formal remembrance of the Columbia space shuttle crew and pledged in religious tones that America's space program will forge on.

"This course of exploration and discovery is not an option we choose," the stone-faced president said at a Johnson Space Center ceremony. "It is a desire written in the human heart where that part of creation seeks to understand all creation."

He spoke on the same landscaped NASA mall where President Reagan eulogized the crew of the Challenger shuttle 17 years ago after the craft exploded on take-off.

The sky over Bush was the same cool, blue, nearly cloudless Texas canvas on which Columbia streaked into oblivion four days earlier.

"Their mission was almost complete and we lost them so close to home," the former Texas governor said to start his remarks.

Bush took a message to the astronauts' families: Their sacrifice was not in vain; America's space exploration will go on.

"Each of these astronauts had the daring and the discipline required of their calling. Each of them knew great endeavors are inseparable with from great risk, and each of them accepted those risks willingly, even joyfully, in the cause of discovery," Bush said.

"Our nation shares in your sorrow, and your pride. The loss was sudden and terrible and for their families the grief is heavy," Bush told the families.

"We remember not only one moment of tragedy, but seven lives of great purpose and achievement," he said.

Bush bowed his head in mourning and first lady Laura Bush wiped tears as the men and women who perished in the space shuttle disaster were memorialized at the home of Mission Control. The shuttle broke up Saturday as it was returning to Earth.

"America's space program will go on," Bush declared in the outdoor ceremony, held beneath a clear blue sky and a few wisps of white clouds.

Thousands of people bunched together on a mass of green lawn stretching more than 200 yards from the white, square-shaped building that houses Mission Control to a series of engineering buildings and the headquarters here.

"All mankind is in their debt," Bush said of the fallen astronauts as members of his audience sniffed and wiped tears from their eyes.

Bush gave a brief rundown on each member of the Columbia crew.

• Air Force Col. Rick D. Husband, shuttle commander, 45, was "a boy of four when he first thought of being an astronaut. As a man and astronaut, he found it was even more important to love his family and serve his Lord."

• Columbia pilot William C. McCool, 41, known by friends "as the most steady and dependable of men."

• Ilan Ramon, 48, the much-decorated Israeli air force colonel and hero, "was a patriot, the devoted son of a Holocaust survivor, served his country in two wars."

• Navy flight surgeon David Brown, 46, thought of astronauts as a boy as "movie stars" and "grew up to be a physician, an aviator who could land on the deck of a carrier in the night and a shuttle astronaut."

• Navy flight surgeon Laurel Clark, 41, "a physician and a flight surgeon who loved adventure, loved her work, loved her husband and her son. A friend who heard Laurel speaking to mission control said, 'There was a smile in her voice'."

• Payload commander Michael P. Anderson, 43, was "a role model, especially for his two daughters and for the many children he spoke to in schools" who once told his minister, "If this thing doesn't come out right, don't worry about me, I'm just going on higher."

• Mission specialist Kalpana Chawla, 41, "She left India as a student, but she would see the nation of her birth, all of it, from hundreds of miles above."

A survey of a number of downtown businesses and restaurants showed scant interest in the televised memorial service today.

Although television sets at many restaurants were tuned into the service, few patrons appeared to be watching. The same was true at several businesses where television sets were airing the memorial.

The memorial service, held at NASA's Johnson Space Center, opened with in invocation by a Navy rabbi and the singing of the hymn, "God of Our Fathers."

Sean O'Keefe, NASA's administrator, said the bond between those who go into space and those on the ground "is incredibly strong. Today, our grief is overwhelming."

"We also have a tremendous duty to honor the legacy of these fallen heroes by finding out what caused the loss of the Columbia and its crew, to correct the problems we find and to make sure that this never happens again," O'Keefe said.

The president and first lady Laura Bush were accompanied on Air Force One here by Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut to walk on the moon. Former senator and astronaut John Glenn and his wife, Annie, also were on the board along with O'Keefe and a delegation of congressional figures.

"It's too bad we couldn't have pushed this day back forever," lamented Glenn, the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth.

NASA estimated the crowd gathering in a plaza known at the Mall here at between 10,000 and 15,000. Mourners spilled beyond the square and crowded around a pond. They stood among the trees and on the lawns -- waiting to hear the presidential eulogy.

"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.

The memorial service had a personal dimension for Pritchard, who said she attended Texas Tech with shuttle Cmdr. Rick Husband, who was among those who perished Saturday.

"He was just the greatest guy -- always smiling, always approachable," she said.

Laura Lucier, an employee of the Canadian space agency who is based at Johnson Space Center, said that passion for space exploration drew workers here and gave the memorial service deeper meaning.

"There's nobody who works at NASA who isn't passionate about it," Lucier said. "When workers are lost, it means a lot more. You work here because you love it, not because it's a paycheck."

The impact of the Columbia's loss was felt well outside the space center's gates. Flags flew at half-staff throughout the region. The sign at a fast-food restaurant just outside Johnson's gates read "Our prayers to our NASA family."

The White House drew inspiration from President Reagan, who delivered one of the most eloquent speeches of his presidency after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

"Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short," Reagan said on Jan. 31, 1986, to a crowd of 10,000 at Johnson, home of Mission Control, the nerve center of space shuttle flights. "But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press. shall not be liable for any errors or delays in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon.

In The News: Shuttle Columbia,

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