The tragedy Tuesday of the shuttle Challenger reasserted the emotional claim the space program has on the nation, but for the three congressmen who have orbited the Earth, there was a poignant immediacy.
Rigorous astronaut training had created special bonds, and Rep. Bill Nelson, D-Melbourne; Sens. Jake Garn, R-Utah, and John Glenn, D-Ohio, expressed personal loss.
Nelson and Garn flew shuttle missions -- Garn in April, Nelson only three weeks ago. A veteran of the Mercury program, Glenn was the first American to orbit earth.
Space missions had changed these men, and Nelson vowed that Challenger's destruction would not change NASA's space mission.
''That is not going to stop the space program,'' he said.
Garn was so overcome by emotion that at times he seemed almost unable to speak, especially when he tried to talk about Mike Smith, a Challenger crew member who was Garn's ''mother hen'' during astronaut training.
Garn compared Smith's death with the automobile accident that killed his first wife.
Over the weekend, Garn visited the Kennedy Space Center, where he addressed an audience of young astronauts and teachers who applied in the contest won by Christa McAuliffe. Having returned from Utah at 2 a.m. Tuesday, Garn was preparing to go to the Capitol when an aide called him with the news.
Glenn was perhaps the most eloquent.
''This is a day we had hoped we could push back forever,'' Glenn said after being told of the accident. '' . . . We feel a tremendous sense of loss . . . and they were carrying our hopes and our dreams as we advanced in the space program on behalf of this country and of the free world. The least we can do is to make sure that their memories never die with us.''
Glenn dismissed the theory that the tragedy might have been caused by ice formed by cold weather at the Cape. Icicles were unlikely to escape NASA scrutiny, he claimed. Rather, he said, the explosion might have happened when the orbiter underwent maximum aerodynamic pressure.
Glenn was asked whether the original Mercury Seven astronauts ever talked about the possibility of such an explosion. He said they sometimes wondered among themselves how many of the seven would be left at the end of the program.
With his staff gathered in the office, Nelson was watching live coverage of the launch. ''We were all cheering,'' he recalled. '' . . . Then I turned to everybody and said, 'There's been a major explosion.' ''
Nelson quoted Helen Keller during a speech to the House floor.'' 'Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing.' ''
Nelson declined interviews until he had conferred with his staff. Accompanied by his wife, he later held a press conference that was partly pre-empted by an emergency session of the Science and Technology Committee.
Nelson said the investigations could be drawn out because crucial evidence may now be ''lying on the bottom of the ocean.''
Praising the dead astronauts as pioneers, he said, ''Pioneers have had tragedies before, and they will occur in the future.''
Nelson said NASA training made astronauts brave.
''I didn't see the element of fear present in anybody,'' he said, referring to his recent flight.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun