On this day in 2003, after ordering the nation’s flags to fly at half-staff, President George W. Bush solemnly addresses the public via live television in the wake of the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia. Hours earlier, television crews had captured Columbia‘s tragic disintegration upon reentering the earth’s atmosphere. All aboard were killed. This was the nation’s second space shuttle disaster—in 1986, the space shuttle Challenger had exploded during its ascent, also killing the entire crew.
While the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began its investigation, the president confirmed in his public statement that none of Columbia‘s astronauts had survived. Bush also spoke of growing American complacency toward space travel: In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket, and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere of the earth. These astronauts knew the dangers and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life.
Days after the tragedy, the deeply religious Bush eulogized the shuttle’s crew at a memorial service, reciting biblical passages and saying the same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The president delivered detailed individual tributes to the seven members of Columbia‘s crew, discussing their backgrounds and reasons for becoming astronauts. He praised the international makeup of the space program, referring to the Columbia crew members from Israel and India. Bush also shared a quote from the Columbia commander that he found particularly moving: “If this thing doesn’t come out right, don’t worry about me, I’m just going on higher.” In closing, the president vowed that America’s unbroken faith in the mission of the [space program] would continue in honor of those who had given their lives in the pursuit of science.
Further manned American space flight was put on hold until an investigation into the causes of the Columbia disaster could be completed. Finally, on July 26, 2005, the Discovery was sent into orbit, even as NASA was criticized by some for returning a shuttle to space before the problems that had downed Columbia had been satisfactorily addressed.
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