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Kennedy Space Center memorial service held where ‘they were supposed to return’

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (BP)–“They were supposed to return here.”

The first words from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush were already on the minds of thousands of engineers, technicians and workers who had launched the Space Shuttle Columbia into orbit Jan. 16.

What they were thinking, he dared to say.

“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 told more than 8,000 attending a private hour-long ceremony in the early morning Feb. 7 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral — on the southern end of the landing strip where the shuttle was scheduled to touch down Feb. 1 at about the same time.

“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.”

Speaking of the “vastness of space and beauty in the stars,” Bush traced the inspiration for the first American flag in 1777, noting that the 13 stripes, alternating red and white, and the 13 white stars of the union in a blue field represented a new constellation.

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

Illustrating the hope of the American people, Bush drew on the biblical account of Abraham in his remarks:

“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.”

Naming the seven astronauts — Rick Husband, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Laurel Salton Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Ilan Ramon and Willie McCool — Bush 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.”

NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe 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.

Recognizing the area’s many schools with names like Astronaut, Challenger 7, Atlantis, Discovery, Endeavor and Columbia, O’Keafe said he had a message for the children: “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.”

On the platform that bore a large official logo of Columbia’s last mission, STS-107, U.S. astronauts Robert Crippen and James D. Halsell sat with Catholic priest John Murray and other local clergy. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., also attended the service where overcast skies drizzled intermittently on mourners seated in metal folding chairs.

Rabbi Zvi Konikov of the Chabad Jewish Community Center of the Space Coast recalled a conversation he had with Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon about how he should mark the Sabbath and other Jewish holy days by the frequent sunsets in space.

“Jerusalem, we have a problem,” Konikov remembers thinking. “So I had my homework to do. But Ilan taught us a powerful message: No matter how fast we’re going, no matter how important our work, we need to pause and think about why we’re here on earth.”
Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan