HOUSTON President Bush paid tribute yesterday to the seven astronauts killed on the Space Shuttle Columbia, declaring at a service that “all mankind is in their debt.”
“Their mission was almost complete, and we lost them so close to home,” Mr. Bush said in opening remarks as family members and NASA workers wept at the outdoor memorial at the Johnson Space Center. “The men and women of the Columbia had journeyed more than 6 million miles and were minutes away from arrival and reunion.”
Standing next to a portrait of the astronauts in their orange jumpsuits, he recalled each by name and lauded their courage and dedication. The Columbia broke up about 16 minutes before scheduled arrival, killing all the astronauts aboard.
Sobs could be heard when a bell tolled seven times and jets roared overhead in the missingman formation.
“The loss was sudden and terrible, and for their families the grief is heavy,” Mr. Bush said to the fallen astronauts’ spouses and children, who sat in the front row.
“Our nation shares in your sorrow and in your pride,” he added. “We remember not only one moment of tragedy, but seven lives of great purpose and achievement.”
The disaster on Saturday has overwhelmed this tight-knit NASA community in Houston. Mr. Bush, however, used the occasion yesterday also to dwell considerably on the glory of the space program, which he vowed “will go on.”
“To leave behind Earth and air and gravity is an ancient dream of humanity,” he said under a clear blue sky. “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.”
The somber but lofty rhetoric of the speech was similar to President Reagan’s eulogy in 1986 after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff.
“To those they have left behind the mothers, the fathers, the husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, and yes, especially the children all of America stands beside you in your time of sorrow,” Mr. Reagan said to the families of the astronauts at the memorial.
“The sacrifice of your loved ones has stirred the soul of our nation and, through the pain, our hearts have been opened to a profound truth the future is not free,” he said.
Sean O’Keefe, chief of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, also paid tribute yesterday to the Columbia crew, especially mission specialist Kalpana Chawla.
“She told us from the flight deck that the entire Earth and sky could be seen as reflected in the retina of her eye,” Mr. O’Keefe said. “She called her crew mates to come over and see this amazing sight.”
Capt. Kent V. Rominger, chief of NASA’s astronaut corps, had endearing anecdotes about each astronaut. NASA employees chuckled knowingly as he recalled hijinks involving the song “Kung Fu Fighting” and the “forced” application of temporary tattoos to identify those connected to STS-107, the name of the doomed mission.
The Navy Band Sea Chanters, dressed in crisp black uniforms, sang somber hymns such as “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” An American flag flew at half-staff atop a nearby building, while sharpshooters kept watch over the crowd from other rooftops.
The president was accompanied by his wife, first lady Laura Bush, and former astronauts Neil Armstrong and John H. Glenn Jr. Mr. Bush spent an hour talking with Mr. Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon, and Mr. Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, during the flight from Washington to Houston, where fighter jets patrolled the skies.
The service began when a rabbi read a Hebrew verse to honor the first Israeli astronaut on a shuttle mission, Col. Ilan Ramon.
After the service, the president met privately with 30 to 40 family members of the fallen crew.
“I’m sorry that we have to meet under these circumstances,” he told them, according to an administration official who was present. “God bless you all.”
Mr. Bush moved among the relatives to comfort them individually. Rubbing the arm of a man whose son was killed, he said: “We’re so proud of you as a father.
“You’re a strong soul,” he told a woman.
The president also tried to bring some levity to the room by kidding with the children about the difficulty of studying. There was some good-natured laughter to offset the tears.
“We find the best among us, send them forth into unmapped darkness and pray they will return,” Mr. Bush said at the memorial. “They go in peace for all mankind, and all mankind is in their debt.
“Yet, some explorers do not return, and the law settles unfairly on a few,” he added. “The families here today shared in the courage of those they loved, but now they must face life and grief without them.”
NASA employees hugged, held hands and rested their heads on each other’s shoulders as they contemplated their fallen colleagues.
“The sorrow is lonely, but you are not alone,” Mr. Bush said. “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.”
Mr. Bush, who has described himself as highly emotional, later acknowledged to the family members that it was difficult to complete his speech, which lasted less than nine minutes. He said that he almost broke down at the end.
“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,” Mr. Bush said. “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 can see, the names of these astronauts is known and remembered.
“They will always have an honored place in the memory of this country,” he concluded. “And today, I offer the respect and gratitude of the people of the United States.”