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Saturday, 1 February, 2003, 20:02 GMT
Nation stunned by shuttle disaster
Flowers next to space shuttle debris
A quiet tribute in Texas: Flowers by shuttle debris

The flag over the White House was at half-mast as President George W Bush's motorcade sped back into Washington - and flags would soon be lowered throughout the nation.

The president returned urgently to the capital from his Camp David retreat, where he had been discussing the latest stage of the Iraq crisis, after hearing from Nasa officials about the disaster.

These men and women assumed great risk in the service to all humanity

President George W Bush
A few hours later, he told the nation that this was a day of "terrible news and great sadness to our nation".

His eyes looking tearful, he vowed that the US space exploration programme would continue, and praised the astronauts for their "high and noble purpose" and their courage and idealism.

"These men and women assumed great risk in the service to all humanity," he told the nation.

We trust the prayers of the nation will be with them

Nasa administrator Sean O'Keefe
And at a grim press conference in Florida, Nasa administrator Sean O'Keefe said this was "a tragic day for the Nasa family, for the families of the astronauts who flew on STS-107".

"We trust the prayers of the nation will be with them and with their families. A more courageous group of people you could not have hoped to know," he said.

Soon after the tragedy, the President himself spoke to the grief-stricken families who had been gathered at the Kennedy Space Centre where the shuttle was due to land at 0916 Eastern time.

People were shocked by the disaster
People were shocked by the disaster
Meanwhile, some tourists visiting the complex - which is open to the public - burst into tears when they heard the news.

And the president phoned several world leaders, including President Vladimir Putin in Russia about the future of the space programme, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Israel to express his condolences for his country's lost astronaut.

Sombre mood

On a quiet grey Saturday morning, people in Washington began gathering in front of televisions in shop windows as the news of the shuttle disaster came through.

With the United States facing many challenges, including an imminent war with Iraq and an economic slowdown, the mood was sombre.

All the major networks have been running continuous news coverage of the shuttle breaking up, and people have been gripped to their screens as details and pictures of the unfolding disaster emerged.

Gradually, more and more eyewitness accounts from Texas added to the sense of grief.

Nasa officials appealed to people in Texas who might have more videos to make them available to the investigation - and they also warned eyewitnesses not to touch any of the debris, which might be dangerous.

And Nasa asked for the media to leave the astronauts' families in peace after their ordeal.

The grief was most intense at Nasa's manned spaceflight centre in Houston, where Ron Dittemore said that "there has got to be a period of mourning" as he announced the temporary suspension of the shuttle programme.

Unanswered questions

As experts tried to explain how the tragedy could have happened, further questions were being asked including whether there was any terrorist connection to the disaster.

So far none appears to be established, although the new secretary for homeland security, Tom Ridge, was closely involved in monitoring events.

But since 11 September, fears of another terrorist incident have never been far from Americans' minds.

Security had been especially tight at the Kennedy Space Centre launch complex because of the presence, for the first time, of an Israeli astronaut on board.

When this correspondent visited the complex in early January, extra security measures were already in place to keep visitors further back from the shuttle.

The 'High Frontier'

The United States prides itself on its technological leadership, and Nasa was widely admired for its role in landing a man on the Moon in 1969, which was a key moment in the Cold War with Russia.

And space has been seen as the "high frontier" where the next phase of discovery and exploration will take place, for the benefit of all, and now the key to national defence as well.

There was profound sense of shock, therefore, when the first shuttle disaster took place in 1986. It almost derailed plans for any future manned space exploration.

But as President Bush has pledged the full resources of the nation to examine the causes of the disaster, this time there is a mood of quiet determination to ensure that, as Bill Readdy, Nasa's associate administrator for spaceflight, said, "these courageous astronauts have not died in vain".


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01 Feb 03 | Americas
15 Jan 03 | Science/Nature
16 Jan 03 | Middle East
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