8,000 Gather at the Kennedy Space Center for the Private Memorial Service

Feb 14, 2003 01:49 PM EST

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – More than 8,000 mourners gathered at the Kennedy Space Center for a private hour-long ceremony on Feb.7. The thousands of engineers, technicians, workers and family who gathered look towards the strip where the shuttle was scheduled to touch down Feb. 1.

“They were supposed to return here," said Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

"After orbiting the earth for 16 days, after traveling more than 6 million miles, after seeing every corner of our beautiful world, they were supposed to return here," Bush continued.

"This place stood ready to welcome home seven new heroes last Saturday morning, but the men and women of Columbia did not return to us," Bush said. "Our entire nation grieves at their loss."

Bush spoke of the inspiration for the first American flag in 1777 as the “vastness of space and beauty in the stars.” The 13 stripes, alternating red and white, and the 13 white stars of the union placed against the blue field, represented a new constellation, said Bush.

"That new constellation shines as brightly as ever today, now 50 stars strong," Bush continued. "It commands the allegiance of 280 million Americans who lowered their star-spangled banner to half-mast in honor of their lost countrymen."

With hope in his voice, Bush recounted the biblical story of Abraham in Genesis 15.

"This nation under God still looks heavenward, looking no longer for the return of those whom we have lost but to God himself. Just as an old childless man did many centuries ago, the Book of Genesis tells us that Abraham, patriarch of the three great faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, was lost in despair one night. Abraham doubted whether God's promise of a son, an heir, would ever come true.

"But the Lord took Abraham outside his tent and said, 'Look up at the heavens and count the stars, if indeed you can count them.' The old man looked up, and the Lord said, 'So shall be your offspring be.' Since that night, the children of Abraham, by blood and by faith, have looked up to the stars and seen in them the boundless expanse of God's blessing and providence, and we have been comforted knowing that even in the midst of despair and darkness God is with us, and with God there is light."

Bush then named the seven astronauts -- Rick Husband, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Laurel Salton Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Ilan Ramon and Willie McCool -- and said they "will forever be united in our hearts, not only united for 16 days as a team on a mission to the stars, but also united as a constellation of stars in the annals of space exploration and discovery."

Following Gov. Bush, was NASA administrator Sean O'Keafe, who called the 140,000-acre Kennedy Space Center the place where "dreams take flight."

It is where "seven courageous astronauts sailed to the heavens," O'Keafe said. "It is from this port that 41 years ago this month Mission Control uttered the words: 'Godspeed, John Glenn,' as this original [Mercury 7] astronaut became the first American to orbit the earth."

And it was from the "sandy soil here in Florida" 34 years ago that Neil Armstrong's foot left to next touch down on lunar soil at Tranquility Base on the moon, O'Keafe reminded mourners.

"To you, the astronauts were more than heroes admired from afar. You shared a special bond with these space explorers, as when they went on their amazing venture, they were going from this very backyard," O'Keafe said.

O’Keafe then told a message to the children of the nearby schools, many of which were named after shuttles such as Astronaut, Challenger 7, Atlantis, Discovery, Endeavor and Columbia.

"While we're filled with sorrow now, there is so much about these historic and heroic astronauts for us to be grateful of. Be grateful that each had a burning desire to conduct research to help better our lives," he said.

Other prominent attendants at the memorial service included astronauts Robert Crippen and James D. Halsell, Catholic priest John Murray and Senator Bill Nelson. They sat on the platform that bore a large logo of Colombia’s last mission, STS-107. The conveners sat beneath overcast skies that drizzeled from time to time, mourning along with the gatherers as they remembered the lives of the seven great heroes.

By Pauline C.