CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy on Thursday with somber ceremonies and remembrances during its annual tribute to fallen astronauts.
More than 100 people gathered under gray skies at Kennedy Space Center to remember not only Columbia’s seven crew members, but also the 18 other astronauts killed in the line of duty. NASA’s two shuttle crashes account for more than half of the names carved into the black granite of the Space Mirror Memorial; plane crashes are to blame for the rest.
None of the Columbia astronaut family members attended the morning ceremony. But Zvi Konikov, a local rabbi, recalled how Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, asked him before the flight how to observe the Sabbath for two weeks in orbit with multiple sunsets a day.
“Ilan taught us a powerful message. No matter how fast we go, no matter how important our work, we need to pause and think about why we are here on Earth, and that is what we are doing today. We pause to recall the memory of all those brave souls,” Konikov said.
Columbia was destroyed during reentry on February 1, 2003, after a piece of fuel tank foam broke off and punctured the left wing during takeoff 16 days earlier. The shuttle crashed over Texas, just 16 minutes from its scheduled landing in Florida.
NASA officials dismissed the impact during the flight despite concerns from others. This same kind of cultural blunder led to the loss of the shuttle Challenger during liftoff on January 28, 1986, killing all seven people on board, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.
The Apollo 1 launch pad fire claimed the lives of three astronauts on January 27, 1967.
Due to the combination of these three dates, NASA sets aside the last Thursday of each January to commemorate its fallen astronauts. At space centers across the country, flags were lowered to half-mast, with ceremonies held alongside talks about spaceflight safety.
Like previous NASA tragedies, the loss of Columbia was preventable, said former shuttle commander Bob Cabana, now NASA associate administrator.
“When we look back, why do we have to keep repeating the same hard lessons?” he said. “I never want to have to walk through another Columbia again.”
Besides Ramon, Columbia’s final crew included Commander Rick Husband, Pilot Willie McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, and Laurel Clark.
A ship’s bell rang after each of the 25 names were read as the ceremony drew to a close.
Bob and Diane Kalander broke off their sailing trip from their home in Jamestown, Rhode Island, to Key West, Florida to honor lost shuttle crews. Their daughter and her boyfriend joined them at Kennedy.
“It’s fading from people’s memory,” Diane Kalander said. “There’s been a de-emphasis on space because people say, ‘Let’s look at the problems on Earth instead of the future.’ We have to look to the future.”
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