Canton Repository

February 7, 2003

Memorial service honors diverse team of astronauts

Copley Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON -- The seven astronauts lost on board the Columbia space shuttle were lauded not just as heroes, but also as interesting, unique individuals during a memorial service in the National Cathedral on Thursday.

“They were soldiers and scientists, doctors and pilots, but above all they were explorers,” Vice President Dick Cheney said.

Speaking in the cavernous church, built in the style of a 14th-century Gothic cathedral, Cheney said the astronauts were “bound together in the great cause of discovery. They advanced human understanding by showing human courage.”

In between a succession of hymns, musical interludes and prayers, government and military officials and religious leaders paid tribute to the diverse team, which included Christians, a Jew and a Hindu.

Col. Rick D. Husband, the commander, was a man of deep faith, as well as a gifted Air Force pilot, said retired Marine Corps Col. Robert D. Cabana, NASA director of flight crew operations.

“Rick is home safe with his Lord,” said Cabana, as light filtered down through stained glass windows carved out of walls 10 stories above the sanctuary floor.

Cabana noted Israeli Air Force Col. Ilan Ramon’s wry sense of humor, recalling how he complained to a flight surgeon during the shuttle mission that he was sick. Yes, Ramon went on, “I have ground sickness. I must stay in space longer,” Cabana said.

Laurel B. Clark, a Navy commander and flight surgeon, combined an “effervescent” personality with a drive to succeed, he observed.

Then there was William “Willie” McCool — what a name for a Navy test pilot, Cabana marveled. In reality, McCool was a “quiet, mild mannered, nice guy,” he remembered. “Flying in space was more than he could have imagined.”

Air Force Lt. Col. Michael P. Anderson was mild mannered too, he said. But Anderson “excelled in everything he did.”

Kalpana Chawla, born in India, was Hindu. “I’ve never met anyone with the discipline that KC had,” Cabana remarked.

Navy Capt. David M. Brown, he said, “lived to explore, to do research.”

Scattered through the audience of 1,400 were congressmen and senators, Cabinet officers and friends and family of the perished astronauts.

During the 1 1/2-hour ceremony, one of the most persistent themes was that the astronauts were serving humanity, performing experiments in space to make the earth a better place.

“Some day, due to our astronauts’ dedicated space research, we may have better means of fighting cancer, of delivering safe drugs and of helping our parents and grandparents stay healthy in their golden years,” NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said.

Religious leaders depicted the loss as a reminder of eternal truths.

During times of great tragedy, “we are tempted to think that God has dropped the ball,” said Brig. Gen. Charles C. Baldwin, deputy chief of chaplains in the Air Force. It is during these times that “God is more present to us than we can imagine.”

Victoria Clark Berkemeyer, a sister-in-law to astronaut Laurel Clark, said the loss has given her greater appreciation for life and its fragility.

Just as the astronauts strove to be “extraordinary,” ordinary people can become extraordinary during tragedy, the Columbus, Ohio, woman said.

“You can’t take things for granted,” she said while leaving the church. “Nobody thought there would be any danger in landing.”

After having lost her mother and father in the last two years as well as her sister-in-law, the mother of three said she has come to see her family as “much more precious.”

“From the greatest horrible loss, good can come if you let it,” Berkemeyer said.

A visitor from Germany described the experience as moving.

“It’s extraordinary, because it has such a feeling of togetherness,” said Nelly Graef, a University of Cologne student. “There’s not many countries that have such a feeling of togetherness.”