Image: Kennedy Space Center Workers Attend Runway Memorial Service
NASA workers attend a memorial service for the Columbia astronauts on a runway at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Thousands of workers who launched shuttle Columbia into orbit gathered Friday on the landing strip where it was supposed to come home, honoring “as wonderful a group of human beings as you could ever hope to assemble.” Dark clouds loomed over much of the Kennedy Space Center during most of the hour-long service. But as it closed with an aerial missing-man formation, the T-38 jet that broke away found one of the few holes in the clouds and flew out of sight. Moments later, the hole closed.

Six days earlier, the families of the seven astronauts had waited along the same landing strip while in the skies over Texas, the Columbia, just 16 minutes from home, broke apart.

“She carried as wonderful a group of human beings as you could ever hope to assemble,” NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said Friday. “We miss them more than words can describe.

O’Keefe, standing by a large logo for the mission, STS-107, noted the closeness and the diversity of Columbia’s crew, which included an Israeli, an African-American and an American woman who was born in India.

“The astronauts represented such a wonderful tapestry of races, religions, nationalities,” he said.

The service was open to the 15,000 workers at the space center, and more than 7,000 attended, officials said. Sen. Bill Nelson, a former astronaut, and Gov. Jeb Bush, joined them.

“Let us share the hope that when we look to the stars, we will see in them a reminder of the heroes who dared to travel among them,” Bush told the crowd.

Robert L. Crippen, the pilot on Columbia’s debut trip in 1981, described NASA’s oldest shuttle as a lost friend for many of the Kennedy Space Center workers who had spent years maintaining and refurbishing it.

“Columbia was hardly a thing of beauty except for those of us who loved and cared for her,” Crippen said. “She was often badmouthed for being a little heavy in the rear end, but many of us can relate to that. ... She was our leader.”

Rabbi Zvi Konikov recounted how Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon had asked him how he should observe the Jewish Sabbath in space when there is a sunset every 1½ hours, and by that measure, a Sabbath every 10½ hours.

“Jerusalem, we have a problem!” said Konikov in a play on the famous words issued by astronaut Jim Lovell during the troubled Apollo 13 mission in 1970.

Ramon decided to observe the Sabbath according to Earth’s time.

Other memorial services have been held in Houston, Washington and the astronauts’ hometowns to remember the seven: Commander Rick Husband, 45; payload commander Michael Anderson, 43; mission specialist David Brown, 46; pilot William McCool, 41; mission specialist Kalpana Chawla, 41; mission specialist Laurel Clark, 41; and Ramon, 48.

Another memorial was planned Saturday morning for personnel at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., where remains of the astronauts were briefly held and much of the debris from the Columbia is being stored for inspection.

Richard Khoury, a NASA transportation worker who has worked at Kennedy Space Center for 19 years, said the service there had allowed the men and women who had worked with the astronauts to grieve publicly.

“This is good because it’s hands-on,” he said. “It lets us feel like we’re part of it.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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