- The Washington Times - Monday, February 3, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 3 (UPI) — President George W. Bush was briefed Monday on the space shuttle Columbia tragedy and later repeated his vow that America would remain committed to extraterrestrial exploration.

The seven astronauts killed Saturday over Texas during re-entry "would be remembered for their achievements, their heroism and sense of wonder" on a mission to try and find solutions to scientific problems "that elude us here on Earth," he said.

But their deaths would not deter the American spirit.

Bush made the comments during a visit to the National Institutes of Health in suburban Maryland, where he had gone to banner his proposed Project BioShield, a 10-year, $6 billion effort to develop and produce drugs and vaccines to protect Americans from the effects of a terrorist attack using biological agents, such as anthrax and small pox and botulinum toxin.

The terrorists who demolished the World Trade Center in New York and part of the Pentagon outside Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, "wouldn't hesitate" to use chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, he said.

The United States hadn't produced much of the vaccines in the past since "the natural occurrence of these diseases in our country are so rare," he said. "But the world changed on Sept. 11, 2001, and we have to respond to that change."

Under the plan, government scientists would not only be able to research vaccines and treatment, they could produce, or order, and stockpile such materials without having to seek congressional approval.

Earlier in the day, Bush met for 45 minutes with NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe on the shuttle accident. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said O'Keefe began the session by describing what was being done to help the families of the Columbia astronauts.

O'Keefe then took the president through a chronology of events preceding the craft's break up at an altitude of more than 200,000 feet as it headed toward Florida for landing after a 16-day mission that included experiments devised by schoolchildren.

O'Keefe also briefed Bush on the investigations into the accident's causes.

Fleischer said Bush was determined that no stone be left unturned in finding out what made Columbia break up.

"The president is committed to the future of space exploration, he is committed to the future of the men and women of NASA and the international collaboration that has allowed mankind to explore space to the degrees that we have and the degrees to continue to do so and will do so," Fleischer added.

Bush, together with the first lady, will fly Tuesday to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to attend a memorial service for the astronauts.

In other developments Monday, Bush was meeting with the king of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, on the confrontation with Iraq and on hopes for an eventual Middle East peace settlement.

King Hamad was supposed to meet with the president on Tuesday, but the time was changed because of the Columbia memorial ceremony.

The king is an important U.S. ally in the Gulf. The U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, where the king has instituted a process to turn the country into a constitutional monarchy with an elected legislature.

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