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Bush leads mourning at memorial for fallen astronauts
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President Bush sits with family members of the shuttle victim's at a memorial service in Houston. (NASA)

Houston, Texas — (AP) - Led by President Bush, thousands of grieving space workers and their families, friends, neighbors and political leaders paid a solemn farewell Tuesday to the seven Columbia astronauts. "Their mission was almost complete and we lost them so close to home," Bush said.

Bush bowed his head in mourning and first lady Laura Bush wiped tears as the men and women who perished in the space shuttle disaster were memorialized at the home of Mission Control. The shuttle broke up Saturday as it was returning to Earth."

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Image The family of astronaut Michael Anderson

"Each of these astronauts had the daring and the discipline required of their calling. Each of them knew great endeavors are inseparable with great risk, and each of them accepted those risks willingly, even joyfully, in the cause of discovery," Bush said.

"America's space program will go on," Bush declared in the outdoor ceremony, held beneath a clear blue sky and a few wisps of white clouds.

Thousands of people bunched together on a mass of green lawn stretching more than 200 yards from the white, square-shaped building that houses Mission Control to a series of engineering buildings and the headquarters here.

"All mankind is in their debt," Bush said of the fallen astronauts as members of his audience sniffed and wiped tears from their eyes.

The memorial service, held at NASA's Johnson Space Center, opened with in invocation by a Navy rabbi and the singing of the hymn, "God of Our Fathers."

Sean O'Keefe, NASA's administrator, said the bond between those who go into space and those on the ground "is incredibly strong. Today, our grief is overwhelming."

"We also have a tremendous duty to honor the legacy of these fallen heroes by finding out what caused the loss of the Columbia and its crew, to correct the problems we find and to make sure that this never happens again," O'Keefe said.

All mankind is in their debt.
- President Bush

The president and first lady Laura Bush were accompanied on Air Force One here by Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut to walk on the moon. Former senator and astronaut John Glenn and his wife, Annie, also were on the board along with O'Keefe and a delegation of congressional figures.

"It's too bad we couldn't have pushed this day back forever," lamented Glenn, the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth.

NASA estimated the crowd gathering in a plaza known at the Mall here at between 10,000 and 15,000. Mourners spilled beyond the square and crowded around a pond. They stood among the trees and on the lawns - waiting to hear the presidential eulogy.

"He's the leader of our country, and his being here wasn't necessary, but it does show we are mourning," said Rochelle Pritchard, a NASA contract worker who helps manufacture robotic flight control gear.

The memorial service had a personal dimension for Pritchard, who said she attended Texas Tech with shuttle Cmdr. Rick Husband, who was among those who perished Saturday.

"He was just the greatest guy - always smiling, always approachable," she said.

Laura Lucier, an employee of the Canadian space agency who is based at Johnson Space Center, said that passion for space exploration drew workers here and gave the memorial service deeper meaning.

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Image Mourners

"There's nobody who works at NASA who isn't passionate about it," Lucier said. "When workers are lost, it means a lot more. You work here because you love it, not because it's a paycheck."

The impact of the Columbia's loss was felt well outside the space center's gates. Flags flew at half-staff throughout the region. The sign at a fast-food restaurant just outside Johnson's gates read "Our prayers to our NASA family."

The White House drew inspiration from President Reagan, who delivered one of the most eloquent speeches of his presidency after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

"Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short," Reagan said on Jan. 31, 1986, to a crowd of 10,000 at Johnson, home of Mission Control, the nerve center of space shuttle flights. "But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain."

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