KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. - Felix Alberto Soto Toro still wants to be an astronaut, now more than ever. He has dreamed of floating among the stars since he was 6. As a student at Florida Institute of Technology 17 years ago, he watched the Challenger explode. But he dug in: He joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that same year, went on to earn a doctorate in electrical engineering and is now taking flying lessons.
The loss of the shuttle Columbia on Saturday was brutal. NASA considers itself a family, and Toro, 36, felt a kinship with each of its missions. The project manager had worked on pro- cessing Columbia's equipment. But the shuttle's failure, he said yesterday, has also given him new inspiration to dig in once again and help find a safer way into space.
"Everyone who works on the space project does it because we love space conquest," he said yesterday. "We hate it when we can't account for details that put the space program on hold."
On a gloriously sunny day with temperatures in the 70s, the "space coast" communities around NASA's launch complex spent the day looking for meaning in the disappearance of the otherwise successful mission just minutes before it was scheduled to land.
In churches, at a memorial wall for lost astronauts, at restaurants and stores abuzz with the normal weekend errands, people seemed shaken but resolute. With the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks fresh in their minds and war with Iraq looming, some said they can't quite process this latest tragedy. But space exploration, they said, must go on.
Jim Powell, 72, of Sanford, Fla., was upset to hear that NASA is holding off launches while investigating the accident, which requires collecting pieces of debris scattered across several counties. No matter what they find, he reasoned, it won't make space travel completely safe.
"They're in a really dangerous business. The guys in the CIA can't touch them for risk," said the self-described amateur astronomer who visited the astronaut memorial with his wife yesterday. "They shouldn't shut it down while they collect all the pieces. What difference will it make? When you start tying people on the front end of a rocket, there's always a chance it's going to malfunction."
In communities where almost everyone works for NASA or knows someone who does, pastors urged their congregations to remember the astronauts for their sacrifices and to follow their examples.
"They were called by God to the ministry of exploration, of service to the world," said the Rev. Edward B. Branch, a visiting priest at Divine Mercy Catholic Church in Merritt Island. "They had to rely constantly on God's promise that 'if I call you to do what I call you to do, I'll take care of you.'
"These were not people who sat around obsessing ... about the possibility of tragedy," he said. "They did their part. They explored together - note how multicultural the group is. And now, it's up to us."
At First United Methodist Church of Titusville, seven candles were lighted at the altar as the Rev. David Waller read the name of each astronaut. He recalled how the community waited Saturday, as it normally did on a routine landing day, for the usual sound of twin sonic booms signaling a safe landing - booms that never came. Now, once again, he said, "We're experiencing that awful sinking feeling and grief."
"We are reminded that the leap to space ... is yet a pioneering adventure," he said.
At the space center complex, hundreds of employees were summoned to work during the weekend to begin gathering data for the investigation.
Mary Gutierrez, 39, said her husband, who works on rocket boosters, had barely registered the gut-wrenching news when he had to rush to work. "He said it was like a funeral," she said, picking up her children from Sunday school yesterday. "He said it was going to be a long couple of months." (Mary Gutierrez, in turn, went about her normal business, signing her sons up for soccer. "I thought, 'I don't need another tragedy. I'm just going to block this one out.' It didn't work.")
For the Kennedy Center community, the shuttle program "is your whole life," said NASA spokeswoman Lisa Malone. "When you have that kind of passion for your work, the loss is magnified."
Employees are still in disbelief, said Bruce Buckingham, the space center's news chief, largely because the tragedy happened during re-entry, which has never posed a significant problem in the history of the space program.
"Re-entry has always gone like clockwork," he said. "I think we got lulled into thinking that although landing is certainly risky and we take all the precautions, we had it locked up."
NASA officials have canceled the launch of Columbia's sister ship, Atlantis, that was set for March 1, and have not said when they will resume the shuttle program.
The notion of a protracted hold on shuttle flights sends shivers through the local restaurant and tourism industries, which rely on the thousands of visitors who typically come to watch each of the half-dozen launches every year. The program was on hold for 2 1/2 years after the Challenger exploded.
The potential economic effect worries people in many businesses along the coast.
"Obviously, my first thoughts go out to the families. But every person here is affected in some way," said Tricia Tezel, 36, the mother of four. "My husband is in commercial real estate. When they aren't running launches, people aren't coming to town."
"Right now, people are just trying to deal with the emotional blow," Gutierrez said. "But underneath, I know everyone is thinking about whether they'll have their job."
At the Astronauts Memorial, a mirrored wall enscribed with the names of those who have died in the space program, these practical concerns seemed secondary.
Dare Crusade, 10, from Orlando, was on a Cub Scout canoe trip when he heard about the accident. It was particularly upsetting to the Scouts because they are a Jewish group and had excitedly followed the participation of Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space. Dare came to the memorial with a hand-made card that said: "I look in the sky and see your face, wondering why you died in space. The stars are bright, just like you. God speed to all of you."
Dare said he had to come pay his respects. "Because they played such an important role. Because they could have changed the world with all that stuff they had," he said, speaking of Columbia's vast payload of scientific experiments. "And because they had family and friends waiting for them to come home."