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A Farewell to the Heroes of the Space Shuttle Columbia

February 4, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: Pres. Bush led the families of the “Columbia” crew, and thousands of their grieving NASA colleagues, in a memorial ceremony on the sun-drenched lawn of the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The mourners included members of Congress and two icons of the American space program: Former Sen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit earth, and Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk the face of the moon. There were prayers said in English and Hebrew– to honor Ilan Ramon, the Israeli crew member– and words of praise from NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe.

SEAN O’KEEFE: This year, our centennial of flight, inspires us to marvel at how far we’ve come from the daring achievements of two bicycle makers from Ohio, Orville and Wilbur Wright, and their achievements at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The astronauts’ ambitious research and exploration activities honored the dreams of explorers and inventors everywhere. Nearly three weeks ago, we saw our seven astronauts head into space with smiles on their face, and, as their families have so eloquently said, with hearts full of enthusiasm, pride in country, faith in their God, and a willingness to accept risk in pursuit of knowledge– knowledge that might improve the quality of life for all mankind.

TERENCE SMITH: The speaker who knew the victims the best, navy captain Kent Rominger, head of the astronaut’s office, recalled the spirit of the crew of the mission known as STS-107.

CAPT. KENT ROMINGER: The world lost seven heroes. We lost seven family members. Coping with their tragic loss is going to be extremely difficult. But remembering the unique qualities of each and sharing will help us heal. Every crew becomes a family in this case years of training. But the STS-107 crew grew particularly close. They were generous and caring bunch with a great sense of humor. At the astronaut Christmas party this last December, the STS-107 crew and spouses were there in rare form. They had paper crowns. They were sporting STS-107 tattoos and truly were the life of the party. As a matter of fact, anybody that passed within ten feet of their table was encouraged if not physically helped to a chair and immediately branded with an STS-107 tattoo. At the time I didn’t openly thank them for the tattoo square in the middle of my forehead but I was very proud to be labeled as one of them.

TERENCE SMITH: Pres. Bush then spoke for the nation.

PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: Their mission was almost complete, and we lost them so close to home. The men and women of the “Columbia” had journeyed more than six million miles, and were minutes away from arrival and reunion. The loss was sudden and terrible, and for their families, the grief is heavy. Our nation shares in your sorrow and in your pride. And today we remember not only one moment of tragedy, but seven lives of great purpose and achievement.

To leave behind Earth and air and gravity is an ancient dream of humanity. For these seven, it was a dream fulfilled. Each of these astronauts had the daring and discipline required of their calling. Each of them knew that great endeavors are inseparable from great risks. And each of them accepted those risks willingly, even joyfully, in the cause of discovery.

Rick Husband was a boy of four when he first thought of being an astronaut. As a man, and having become an astronaut, he found it was even more important to love his family and serve his Lord.

David Brown was first drawn to the stars as a little boy with a telescope in his backyard. David grew up to be physician, an aviator who could land on the deck of a carrier in the middle of the night, and a shuttle astronaut. His brother asked him several weeks ago what would happen if something went wrong on their mission. David replied, “This program will go on.”

Michael Anderson always wanted to fly planes, and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. He also told his minister, “if this thing doesn’t come out right, don’t worry about me, I’m just going on higher.”

Laurel Salton Clark was 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.”

None of our astronauts traveled a longer path to space than Kalpana Chawla. She left India as a student, but she would see the nation of her birth, all of it, from hundreds of miles above. When the sad news reached her hometown, an administrator at her high school recalled, “She always said she wanted to reach the stars. She went there and beyond.” Kalpana’s native country mourns her today, and so does her adopted land.

Ilan Ramon also flew above his home, the land of Israel. He said, “The quiet that envelopes space makes the beauty even more powerful. And I only hope that the quiet can one day spread to my country.” Ilan was a patriot and the devoted son of a Holocaust survivor, and served his country in two wars.

The “Columbia’s” pilot was Commander Willy McCool, who friends knew as the most steady and dependable of men. In Lubbock today, they are thinking back to the Eagle Scout who became a distinguished Naval officer and a fearless test pilot.

Our whole nation was blessed to have such men and women serving in our space program. Their loss is deeply felt, especially in this place, where so many of you called them friends. The people in NASA are being tested once again. In your grief, you are responding as your friends would have wished: With focus, professionalism, and unbroken faith in the mission of this agency. Captain Brown was correct: America’s space program will go on. The families here today shared in the courage of those they loved, but now they must face life and grief without them. The sorrow is lonely. But you are not alone. In time, you will find comfort and the grace to see you through. And in God’s own time, we can pray that the day of your reunion will come. And to the children who miss your mom or dad so much today, you need to know they love you, and that love will always be with you. They were proud of you, and you can be proud of them for the rest of your life.

The final days of their own lives were spent looking down upon this Earth. And now, on every continent, in every land they could see, the names of these astronauts are known and remembered. They will always have an honored place in the memory of this country. And today I offer the respect and gratitude of the people of the United States. May God bless you all.

TERENCE SMITH: The service concluded with the traditional tolling of a Navy bell, rung seven times, and a flyover of four military jets in the missing man formation, one streaking nearly vertically, out of sight, into the blue.