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Tuesday, 4 February, 2003, 23:24 GMT
Tears and tributes at Houston
Mourners at memorial service
America is still coming to terms with its grief

As the hunt for wreckage from the Columbia space shuttle continues, President Bush has joined family members of the seven astronauts who died for a memorial service in their honour.

Hundreds of their relatives and friends gathered on the manicured lawns outside the mission control rooms of the shuttle programme.

The nation is remembering not only a moment of tragedy

President Bush
It is a place rich with the history of America's space effort, which moved here almost 40 years ago.

The mood was understandably sombre with the questions surrounding the future of the American manned space programme put, momentarily, to the back of people's minds.

This was a moment to reflect on the lives and the achievements of the seven astronauts - five men and two women - who died on Saturday.

Tributes

The ceremony began with anthems performed by the Air Force band as relatives of the astronauts filed past the waiting crowd and took their seats.

President Bush
Bush eulogised each of the astronauts in turn
Among them, the parents of the Indian-born astronaut Kalpana Chawla and the father of the first Israeli to join the shuttle programme, Ilan Ramon.

Then, Nasa administrator Sean O'Keefe set the tone of the service by eulogising the lost astronauts.

He said they had been like a tight-knit family and it was Nasa's duty to provide comfort for the families.

"We must honour the legacy of the dead by finding the cause of the accident and making sure it doesn't happen again "he said.

Humour and humility

The mood of the ceremony lightened with comments made by the head of Nasa's astronauts corps, Kent Rominger.

SHUTTLE CREW
Commander Rick Husband, US
Pilot William McCool, US
Michael Anderson, US
David Brown, US
Kalpana Chawla, US
Laurel Clark, US
Ilan Ramon, Israel
His anecdotes concerning Columbia's crew reflected their sense of humour and humility.

It brought home the fact that these were individuals with families and children as well as being dedicated astronauts.

It was left to President Bush to find the right words to console the nation.

He said he had great respect and gratitude for the work of Nasa and the Columbia crew, whom he said had "died trying to push forward the limits of man's understanding.

"The nation is remembering not only a moment of tragedy," he said, "but it also celebrates seven lives of great achievement."

Flypast

The ceremony ended with four aircraft - T38 Nasa training jets - flying overhead.

As they did so, one peeled away from the rest in what is called "the missing man formation" - touching symbolism to end a moving occasion.

Now the investigation continues and the big questions facing Nasa about the future of the shuttle programme will come to the fore.

It was notable that in President Bush's memorial address he made a pledge to assure the future prosperity of the space programme, but did not make specific reference to the shuttle's future.

He perhaps knows that this latest tragic setback could mean that the days of the 25-year-old programme are numbered.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Glenda Cooper
"President Bush paid tribute to each of the seven individually"
US President George W Bush
"Our prayers are with their families"
BBC correspondent Pallab Ghosh
"He committed the US to go back into space"

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04 Feb 03 | Americas
04 Feb 03 | Science/Nature
03 Feb 03 | Europe
02 Feb 03 | Europe
02 Feb 03 | Americas
01 Feb 03 | Americas
03 Feb 03 | South Asia
04 Feb 03 | Science/Nature
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