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President Obama, Family, Friends Remember Columbia Astronauts, Urge U. S. Ahead in Space Exploration


Sunny Florida skies graced NASA's Day of Remembrance. Photo Credit/NASA TV


Though separated by many miles, President Obama joined with the families of shuttle Columbia’s crew and the many from NASA who  fanned out across the country on Friday to pay tribute to the seven astronauts who perished a decade ago as they descended toward a landing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Feb. 1, NASA’s Day of Remembrance for 2013, served as an opportunity to remember the losses of shuttle Challenger’s crew in 1986 as well as the astronauts who died aboard Apollo 1 during a launch pad fire in 1967. The trio of tragedies claimed 17 lives and left family and friends of those men and women shaken.

“The exploration of space represents one of the most challenging endeavors we undertake as a nation,” the president said from Washington D. C. “Space exploration and the sacrifice these pioneers made, benefits us all.

And, said Obama, the quest should continue.

“As we undertake the next generation of discovery, today we pause to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice on the journey of exploration.” the president said.  “Right now, we are working to fulfill their highest aspirations by pursuing a path in space never seen before, one that will eventually put Americans on Mars.

Meanwhile Friday, The Astronauts Memorial Foundation hosted a moving tribute to Columbia’s crew joined by Evelyn Husband-Thompson, widow of Columbia commander Rick Husband, at the Kennedy Space Center.

The Space Mirror Memorial provides a backdrop for a solemn Day of Remembrance. The names of each astronaut who has lost his or her life in the pursuit of space exploration is highlighted in the mirror. Photo Credit/NASA TV

She recalled a pre-launch gathering led by her husband that included pilot Willie McCool and mission specialists Mike Anderson, Laurel Clark, Dave Brown, Kalpana Chawla and Ilan Ramon, ofIsrael, to reflect on the mission ahead.

Husband shared his passion for spaceflight with his fellow fliers, urging them to strive for success as the lifted off on Jan. 16, 2003. His crew, many of them entering space for the first time, worked around the clock for 16 days, achieving all of their objectives, an ambitious list of more than 80 science experiments that helped to set the stage for research aboard the International Space Station.

However, the anticipation of a joyful reunion by the families of the Columbia crew was shattered as the ship succumbed to heat shield damage during the spacecraft’s high speed descent to Earth. The shuttle crew’s family gathered at Kennedy’s Shuttle Landing Facility, but Columbia broke apart over Texas just 16 minutes before the anticipated touchdown.

“As moments rolled into days and days into years, the grief journey has been difficult, complicated and surprising. The sorrow and impact of the tragedy on all of our families has been extreme,” said Husband. “But just as a forest fire reduces beautiful foliage into ashes, those ashes ultimately become nourishment for new healthy growth. There are, indeed, small green shoots of hope springing up in our lives.”

She offered her thanks to the people of East Texas who joined in the search for theColumbia’s astronauts amidst the widely scattered shuttle wreckage.

“It takes time to heal, lots of time,” said Husband-Thompson, “But healing is possible.”

After a lengthy independent investigation intoColumbia’s loss, including the management failures, NASA’s shuttle program returned to flight in 2005. The shuttle program came to a close in mid-2011 — as investigators recommended –when the assembly of the space station was completed.

Eileen Collins, who commanded the first shuttle mission afterColumbia, was among those who spoke at the Day of Remembrance.

“For the Columbia astronauts — their mission was the fulfillment of their dreams,” said Collins.

“It’s a type of freedom to look down on our beautiful planet,” said Collins, the first woman shuttle commander. “They pushed hard to achieve the mission goals and to be part of a team with a meaningful vision. That vision is: understanding the universe; the human body and the possibilities of new technologies; the Earth’s natural processes; the secrets of nearby planets. The Columbia crew was taking baby steps. But great missions begin with baby steps, small steps, learning steps. They knew that passion and risk are part of any great mission.”

At theFloridamemorial, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, recalled the challenge faced by the space agency inColumbia’s aftermath and the new resolve it forged to press on with human exploration.

“Ten years ago, it would have been easy to pull back from the frontier of space and say it was too risky to pursue,” Gerstenmaier told the gathering.  “Instead, we rededicated ourselves to improving how we push the boundaries of space exploration. We vowed to continue with our eyes open. We cannot be afraid of risk and we cannot be ignorant of it, either. Our lasting tribute to those we have lost is to carry on with the cause they believed was worth the ultimate sacrifice”







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