Hundreds of mourners gathered in the Space Hall at the National Air and Space Museum yesterday for a memorial service for the Space Shuttle Columbia’s seven crew members, televised from the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Tourists, employees and area residents with somber expressions watched two wide-screen televisions in silence at the Smithsonian museum. Some dabbed tears as they listened to President Bush eulogize the astronauts.
A scale model of the Space Shuttle Columbia was placed between the two screens and a photograph of the smiling crew was beside it. Directly in front of the model was a table covered in a royal blue cloth that overflowed with bouquets of pink roses, white carnations, purple lilies and babies’ breath. “Thinking of You” cards, a miniature statue of an angel, a Torah, note-size American flags and multicolored votive candles also adorned the table.
Nathaniel J. Jordan, a longtime space enthusiast and former pilot, arrived early for the afternoon service so he could get a coveted front-row seat to watch and reflect with the nation. Mr. Jordan, 63, placed a cherished memento on the memorial table.
“I was at the first launch of Columbia at Kennedy Space Center on April 12, 1981. Two days later, I was at Edwards Air Force Base in California for the first landing. It was the first time a spacecraft had landed on American soil,” Mr. Jordan said.
“What happened is terrible. But, we can’t stop because we have had more successes. This was the 144th U.S. manned space mission. We’ve had 142 successes and two failures which were the Challenger and now Columbia. Pioneering is never without its price,” said the Northeast resident.
A group of four persons from Reading, Pa., who had come to the District to attend an education conference, decided to make the memorial service a top priority. They joined others who gathered to pay tribute to the astronauts and connect with the families of the astronauts and with the nation.
“The hardest part of this is seeing the crew alive in space,” said Todd Bube, 32, referring to footage of the group in space talking and laughing among themselves.
Mr. Bube marveled at how far the United States’ space program has come in so short a time in terms of exploration. He commended Mr. Bush for his grace under pressure.
“President Bush has had a lot to deal with first the explosion of the World Trade Center and now the explosion of Columbia,” Mr. Bube said.
His brother-in-law, Andy Fick, 35, said it was important to attend the memorial for a number of reasons.
“We all shared a common tragedy and in order to bring closure to it, we needed to watch the ceremony, Mr. Fick said.
His wife, Beth, stood throughout the memorial service and listened intently to the words spoken by the president. She said she was impressed with his compassion and humanity during the nation’s most difficult times.
“The president comes off very human. He seems like he loves the people. He wasn’t just there as a figurehead. He was there because he cares. He seems like a real person and it comes through. God wanted him to be president right now and that’s why he is,” Mrs. Fick, 35, said.
Bill Baker, who lives in Northwest, visited the museum yesterday with camera in hand. He took numerous pictures of the Columbia model and the memorial table to e-mail to family and friends throughout the country. He reflected on what it means to be a hero.
“Today, the term hero is so overused. For the astronauts, [space travel] is commonplace, you don’t think about how heroic they really are. Every time they step into a shuttle how dangerous it is. They’ve done such a good job, it’s hard to grasp just how fragile life is,” he said.