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The Nation | THE COLUMBIA DISASTER

An Emotional Farewell for the Crew of Shuttle

At Washington National Cathedral, Cheney lauds the astronauts for their 'service to all mankind.'

February 07, 2003|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Two days after a national memorial service in Houston for Columbia's seven astronauts, Washington said goodbye in its own way Thursday.

In a low-key service at Washington National Cathedral, Vice President Dick Cheney told hundreds of mourners: "Every great act of exploration involves great risk. The crew of the Columbia accepted that risk in service to all mankind. The Columbia is lost, but the dreams that inspired its crew remain with us."

The emotional highlight of the service came when singer Patti LaBelle, tears shimmering on her face, belted out the song "Way Up There," which includes the lyrics: "Imagination and amazing grace bring us closer to our home in space."

Several family members of the astronauts -- including relatives of Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown and Laurel Clark -- attended the service, as did some of Washington's political establishment. Former Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, the first American to orbit the Earth, sat with his wife, Annie, both brushing tears from their eyes. Ten buses of employees from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in a Maryland suburb, lined Wisconsin Avenue in front of the cathedral, which has played host to memorials for official Washington since President Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone in 1907.

Scientists and engineers from NASA sat together, many still looking stunned by the loss of seven colleagues whose research was at the heart of their work.

Among the stained-glass windows in the Episcopal church is one that includes a piece of moon rock brought home by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Buried in the walls are the tombs of President Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller. And much social memory resides in the cathedral -- a Gothic structure with arched ceilings where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached the last sermon of his life, and where a funeral was held for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Amid all the history, mourners Thursday heard calls to continue exploration of space, as a memorial to the seven astronauts who died Saturday when the shuttle Columbia broke apart as it reentered Earth's atmosphere.

"As we worship today in celebration of seven wonderful lives, this glorious window reminds us that the exploration of space will go on," said NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, "propelled by the human urge to strive, to seek, to find and not yield, and by our common faith in our creator."

In the days since Columbia's demise, some critics have raised questions about manned space missions, and the shuttle program in particular. But Cheney and O'Keefe praised the scientific achievements of the space program.

"Someday, due to our astronauts' dedicated space research, we may find better means of fighting cancer, of delivering lifesaving drugs, helping our parents and grandparents stay healthy throughout their lives," the NASA chief said.

Cheney, recalling the sweep of the space program's history, insisted on its future.

"Two generations ago, the United States embarked on a course of space exploration. Today, despite this tragedy, we remain on that course," the vice president said. "And while many memorials will be built to honor Columbia's crew, their greatest memorial will be a vibrant space program with new missions carried out by a new generation of brave explorers."

The ceremony took place in the cathedral's central hall, with flags of the United States, NASA and Israel flying, the last in honor of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon. Diplomats from Israel and other embassies were among the mourners.

The diversity of the shuttle's crew was a much-noted theme of the day.

"This was a special and diverse crew of mixed ethnicity, gender and religious belief, bound as one in pursuit of a common and noble goal: to improve life for all of us here on planet Earth through the science they conducted in space," said Col. Robert Cabana, a retired Marine who knew the astronauts.

In the end, Cheney offered as tribute the simple roll call of their names.

"We will never forget the men and women of her final voyage," he said, "Willie McCool, Kalpana Chawla, Ilan Ramon, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Rick Husband."

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