WASHINGTON - As a hazy sun lighted the National Cathedral's stained-glass windows, including one that depicts man's first mission to the moon, Vice President Dick Cheney told hundreds of mourning NASA employees yesterday that their strength and skill would carry the dreams of their fallen comrades and "return us to space."
In another in a series of memorial services for the seven astronauts killed when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas on Saturday morning, National Aeronautics and Space Administration employees arrived on 18 buses from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and from NASA headquarters downtown and filled the pews of the majestic Gothic cathedral, many with space shuttle lapel pins and faces wet with tears.
They were joined by Washington's diplomatic corps, celebrating the diversity of the crew, and by family members of the lost astronauts and former Sen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.
Cheney hailed the crew members as brave explorers who were united "not by faith or heritage, but by the calling they answered and shared."
'Cause of discovery'
"They were bound together in the great cause of discovery," he said. "They were envoys to the unknown. They advanced human understanding by showing human courage."
He said that although many memorials will be built to honor Columbia's crew, the greatest memorial will be a vibrant space program with missions carried out by a new generation of explorers.
"The Columbia is lost," he said, "but the dreams that inspired its crew remain with us."
He said the families of the astronauts have urged officials to go on with the space program. "The legacy of Columbia must carry on, they tell us, for the benefit of our children and yours," Cheney said. "Those dreams are carried by the dedicated men and women of NASA who, time and time again, have achieved the seemingly impossible and whose strength and skill will return us to space."
The service came two days after President Bush paid tribute to the Columbia crew - Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Laurel B. Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown and Ilan Ramon - at a memorial at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
During yesterday's 90-minute service of tributes, prayers and music, many dabbed at tears as Patti LaBelle sang "Way Up There," a song written for NASA to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight. Since last week, the song has become a sort of anthem for the Columbia tragedy.
LaBelle, choked with emotion, looked up to the soaring limestone arches of the cathedral as she sang the final verse: "Way up there where peace remains, bring us closer to our home in space."
With a backdrop of the flags of the United States, NASA and Israel - in honor of Israeli astronaut Ramon - the service reflected the much-celebrated diversity of the crew.
"Jew, Hindu, Christian," said retired Col. Robert D. Cabana, chief of NASA flight crew operations in Houston, as he described the crew's final moments on Earth on launch day huddled together in prayer. "They were bound as one in pursuit of a common and noble goal."
Cabana, a former astronaut, provided colorful glimpses into the personalities of the crew.
He said Ramon joked from orbit that he had "ground sickness" and therefore couldn't return to Earth. "I must stay in space longer," Ramon told the flight surgeon, Cabana said.
Cabana said he had never met anyone with the discipline of Chawla, the diminutive, Indian-born mission specialist. When he recently sent an e-mail to her in space to say he missed seeing her at the gym, she replied that she was getting plenty of exercise aboard the shuttle and challenged him to a push-up contest - "but only while she was in microgravity," Cabana reported.
Husband, the gentle, mild-mannered commander of the Columbia, was the "antithesis" of the image of a fighter pilot, Cabana said. "But what really set him apart was his faith."
Crew of ambassadors
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said the Columbia crew represented the best of the human spirit and had played one of "history's most unique diplomatic roles."
"They were ambassadors of good will for all mankind to the universe," he said.
O'Keefe pointed out that the National Cathedral's stained-glass "Space Window" contains a piece of moon rock brought back by the first men to reach the moon. It "reminds us that the exploration of space will go on," he said.
Addressing what he called the "NASA family," O'Keefe pledged to find the cause of last week's accident, correct whatever problems are found and get back to exploring space in pursuit of such discoveries as lifesaving drugs and a cure for cancer.
"We will persevere," he told the mourners. "We will not let you down."
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun