President Bush, along with the nation and the world expressed tremendous grief today over the loss of seven astronauts aboard Space Shuttle Columbia Saturday, while NASA leadership promised a full investigation of the mishap and made it clear that the space program must forge ahead.
| || Images |
|View of radar image of fireball track from Shuttle Columbia, southwest of Shreveport, Louisiana. Credit: National Weather Service|
|In this image from television, contrails from what appears to be the space
shuttle Columbia can be seen streaking across the sky over Texas, Saturday,
Feb. 1, 2003. Columbia apparently disintegrated in flames minutes before it
was to land in Florida. (AP Photo/WFAA-TV via APTN)Click to enlarge.|
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"There are no survivors," President George Bush said solemnly at a press conference shortly after 2 p.m. ET. "These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life. Because of their courage and daring and idealism, we will miss them all the more."
The mission STS-107 astronauts were extolled by others in the space industry as brave pioneers working for the benefit of all humans.
A somber NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe spoke from the Kennedy Space Center, offering words of comfort to the astronaut's family and promising the cause will be determined and a solution found.
"A more courageous group of people you could not have hoped to know than the families of these crew members, an extraordinary, extraordinary group of astronauts who gave their lives," O'Keefe said.
O'Keefe said he had been in contact with President Bush, as well as Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to coordinate the government's reaction to the event and the gathering of debris.
The world reacts
Government officials around the world expressed condolences for the loss of the spacecraft and its seven crew members.
"Again, your country has made the painful experience that space exploration can claim human victims,'' German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said in a letter of condolence to President Bush.
European Commission President Romano Prodi told Italian news agencies in Bologna that the disaster occurred ``in the service of progress, science and in this case, we can really say humanity.''
The Russian Space Agency was ready to offer any technical help NASA might request for the investigation into the tragedy, said spokesman Vyacheslav Mikhailichenko.
"The Russian space agency expresses its deepest condolences to the American side. This is a terrible catastrophe,'' Mikhailichenko said.
In an era of routine spaceflight, the Columbia seven toiled in relative anonymity compared with many past space explorers. That did not make their loss any less gut-wrenching, especially for family members, friends, and people closely connected to the space program.
With the notable exception of Ilan Ramon, the celebrated first Israeli in space, the crew was not known to most people in America or elsewhere.
They other six were: Rick Husband, Laural Clark, Bill McCool, Dave Brown, Kalpana Chawla and Mike Anderson.
"But if they were really strangers, why do you have a knot in your gut?" asked Tony Phillips, an avid spaceflight fan and editor of Science@NASA, a NASA-run website that chronicles many of the science experiments conducted aboard shuttles and the International Space Station. "Why do you feel so deep-down sad?"
Phillips has an answer: "Astronauts have an unaccountable hold on us. They are explorers. Curious, humorous, serious, daring. Where they go, they go in peace. Every kid wants to be one. Astronauts are the essence of humanity -- the good parts. They are somewhere inside each and every one of us."
John Glenn, the Apollo astronaut, senator from Ohio, and then again an astronaut aboard a 1998 shuttle flight, was watching the landing on television with his wife. Glenn had met Columbia Commander Rick Husband during the pre-1998 flight training.
"Anytime you lose contact like that, there's some big problem," Glenn told the Associated Press as the fate of the crew began to look bleak. "Of course, once you went for several minutes without any contact, you knew something was terribly wrong.''
Moving forward, with heavy emotion
While much of the rest of the world was not watching when the disaster occurred, it soon sank in with the same collective sadness that accompanied previous tragedies. Former Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin said the Columbia disaster will go down in history alongside the 1986 Challenger explosion.
"This is a very sad day," Aldrin said on NBC news.
This is a different era of spaceflight, however, with other astronauts in orbit aboard the International Space Station. Already the industry is acknowledging that it does not have the luxury of grounding the shuttle fleet for a long period, as occurred after Challenger when no flights went up for two years.
Aldrin hinted at the remarkable spirit that drives the space program and its boldest explorers, even in terrible times. "I just hope that we're able to discover in a short period of time what the most likely cause of this is so we can … get the shuttle fleet back going again."
Later, Aldrin read part of a poem sent to him via e-mail and commemorating the Columbia loss. He began to cry and could not finish the poem.
Brian Chase, executive director of the National Space Society (NSS) in Washington, expressed a similar mix of sadness and fortitude.
"Clearly this is a tremendous loss and a tremendous blow to everyone involved in the program," Chase said.
Chase said that while NASA must not take shortcuts in conducting an investigation of the incident, the agency can't afford a lengthy stand down, because the ISS depends heavily on space shuttle flights to rotate the crew, resupply the orbiting outpost, and even to boost it periodically back into proper position because its orbit constantly decays.
"The NSS believes we have to maintain that [space shuttle] capability and maintain the presence at the International Space Station, and its going to be vital that we find some method of doing that," Chase said.
Already by mid-day, flags had been lowered to half-staff at the White House, the Pentagon and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Science experiments lost
Columbia's mission did not involve a visit to the ISS. Instead, it focused intensely on science experiments, which were also lost Saturday. The mission had been billed as a marathon of scientific investigation.
One of the experiments, looking into how moss grows without the influence of gravity, belonged to Ohio State researcher Fred Sack, who had spent a decade preparing his work for the mission.
Sack was at Cape Canaveral in Florida Saturday morning, waiting for the shuttle to arrive. Within about 4 hours of the landing, he and his team would have begun retrieving data from the experiment.
"Obviously, that will not happen now," said Earle Holland, the director of research communications Ohio State University.
Holland said Sack was of course dismayed, but he added that Sack and his team "are much more concerned about the loss of the mission's crew than the experiment and join the rest of the university family in expressing their sorrow and concern to the astronaut's family, and to NASA itself."
The space agency's chief, Sean O'Keefe, expressed his own grief at a press conference early Saturday afternoon.
"The loss of this valiant crew is something we will never be able to get over," he said. To the families of the astronauts, he promised the agency "will do everything, everything we can possibly do to guarantee that they work their way through this horrific tragedy."
He also said a full investigation would be carried out, with the backing of President George Bush, to determine the cause of the disaster so that the space program could move forward.
A "mishap investigation board" has been appointed for the task, O'Keefe said. It will be staffed by safety experts from the Air force, the Department of Transportation and other non-NASA federal agencies.
Dorothy Brown, mother of Columbia crew member Dave Brown, spoke live on NBC news about her son's desire to fly and her emotions.
"Sure I had my fears," she said, on the verge of tears. "But it's what he wanted to do."
The spaceflight community has a long history of moving forward after a period of grieving, and there is help available for family members of the astronauts.
After the crew of the shuttle Challenger was killed on Jan. 28, 1986, the families of the crew created the Challenger Center for Space Science Education in their memory. The non-profit organization is heavily involved in using space as an educational tool.
In an interview, Vance Ablott, the center's director, expressed concerned for Columbia crew's families. "It's a very sad day," Ablott said.
Ablott said that in the days and weeks ahead some of the family members of the Challenger crew would be ready to do whatever they can to help the Columbia families.
The Center issued the following statement:
"We at Challenger Center hold the crew of Columbia and their families in our hearts and prayers during this difficult time, and we ask that the citizens of America and the world do the same. As we, in 1986, began the long journey towards peace and understanding, we ask for patience and cooperation for the families and their colleagues at this critical time."
Space News editor Lon Rains and the Associated Press contributed to this report.