NASA honors Columbia's dead in memorial

Other News Materials 2 February 2008 01:08 (UTC +04:00)

( AP )- In an emotional ceremony just a few miles from where Columbia should have landed five years ago Friday, NASA officials, astronauts, schoolchildren and family members of the lost shuttle crew gathered to remember the seven who died while returning from space.

Evelyn Husband-Thompson noted that Friday's sunrise was just as beautiful as it was the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, when she awaited the homecoming of Columbia and her husband, Rick, its commander.

Columbia never made it back from its science mission. Its wing gashed by a chunk of fuel tank foam insulation at liftoff 16 days earlier, the spaceship shattered high above Texas just minutes from home.

"This morning, I couldn't stop thinking about Rick and Willie and Kalpana and Dave and Mike and Laurel and Ilan ," said Husband-Thompson, naming each of the Columbia crew.

"All of our families went through so much that day. We so miss them, and we will never forget them."

NASA's top spaceflight officials joined Husband-Thompson, who remarried just three weeks ago, her two children and nearly 200 others at the Kennedy Space Center's outdoor astronaut memorial. Each guest received a long-stemmed rose; the flowers were placed in the grating in front of the giant shiny granite marker bearing the names of all NASA's 24 astronauts killed in the line of duty.

Standing on the sidelines under an overcast sky were 44 ninth-graders from Israel, the homeland of astronaut Ilan Ramon. Some of the teenagers were from the same school Ramon attended decades earlier.

"He's Israeli, so it's important," 15-year-old Roman Rashchupkin said. "He learned in our school."

India, the homeland of Columbia astronaut Kalpana Chawla , also was represented at the hourlong ceremony. The chairman of India's space research organization, G. Madhavan Nair, noted how the loss of Columbia was painful not just for the astronauts' families but for the entire world.

Even though the Columbia seven are memorialized all over Earth, and even on Mars where a range of hills is named Columbia, "much more importantly than any physical monument, they're memorialized right here in our hearts," said former shuttle commander Bill Readdy .

Readdy named each of Columbia's crew and said: "We'll always miss your easy laughter and your smiling faces. God willing, five years from now, they'll have even more to be proud of us about as we take even longer strides ... back to the moon and onward toward Mars. May God bless the crew of Columbia. "

Past and present NASA officials, including the space agency's boss, Michael Griffin, stressed how spaceflight is risky and always will be. As the next shuttle crew readies for a launch on Thursday, Griffin noted how crucial it is to learn from past mistakes. He read a letter from President Bush acknowledging the sacrifice of "the seven brave astronauts of Columbia," then presented it to Husband-Thompson.

This is a solemn time of year for NASA. Sunday marked the 41st anniversary of the Apollo 1 spacecraft fire on the launch pad, which killed three astronauts. Monday was the 22nd anniversary of the Challenger launch explosion, which killed seven.

"Americans don't quit and we won't quit. We'll never quit," Griffin said, grimly noting that "not quitting has high costs."