image: DC memorial
Mourners fill the Washington National Cathedral for Thursday's memorial service.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports

Vice President Dick Cheney paid tribute to the seven astronauts who died aboard the space shuttle Columbia, praising them as “envoys to the unknown.” “They were united not by faith nor heritage. … They were bound together in the great cause of discovery,” he said at a memorial service in Washington.

“They were soldiers and scientists and doctors and pilots, but above all they were explorers,” Cheney told the memorial service at Washington National Cathedral, where one of the stained glass windows holds a piece of moon rock.

Cheney also vowed that the space program would not be curtailed because of Saturday’s accident.

“The Columbia is lost, but the dreams that inspired its crew remain with us,” he said.

Family members of three of the Columbia crew — Mike Anderson, David Brown and Laurel Clark — attended the service. Also present was Sen. John Glenn, a pioneer of space exploration who returned to orbit aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1998 at the age of 77, becoming the oldest person to fly in space.

Two flags hung
The other crew members who died aboard the flight were mission commander Rick Husband, pilot William McCool, Kalpana Chawla and Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space. An Israeli flag was displayed alongside the American flag, in honor of Ramon.

The cathedral was filled with mourners, including many members of the astronaut’s families, wearing space shuttle lapel pins. There were tears as singer Patti LaBelle performed “Way Up There,” a song about space travel.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said the Columbia crew “represented the best of the human spirit.”

“They did their chosen calling proud, and they had a special grace,” he said, embodying the tradition of the select few who become astronauts. “Our explorers go forward into the unknown with hope and faith.”

NASA received an outpouring of support from the astronaut’s families and the nation, said O’Keefe. He pledged that the space agency would find the cause of the accident and go on with space exploration and research that might yield better ways of fighting cancer or other medical breakthroughs.

“We will persevere,” he said. “We will not let you down.”

California memorial
At Edwards Air Force Base, the California base where the Columbia landed 13 times over the years, more than 300 people paid tribute Thursday at a memorial that included a 21-gun salute and a flyover by NASA jets. Former astronaut Gordon Fullerton, 66, who flew aboard Columbia on its third mission, said he felt a kinship with the shuttle’s crew.

“Heroes, indeed they are,” Fullerton said. “But in their own minds, they did not consider themselves heroes. I am sure they felt like the luckiest people on Earth as they snapped in at the pad.”

Prayer service
The Washington service followed a tribute Tuesday at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where President Bush said of the astronauts’ mission: “They go in peace for all mankind. And all mankind is in their debt.”

Bush did not attend Thursday’s service, but earlier, at a National Prayer Breakfast, he again paid tribute to what he called “seven brave souls.”

The president said that after meeting with the grieving family members of the astronauts, he came away convinced that “Almighty God was present in their hearts.”

“There was such incredible strength in the room ... that it was overwhelming, to be with those who just lost their husband or wife or dad or mom, and to feel the presence of the Almighty. I attribute it to the fact that they, themselves, are in prayer. And our country prays for their strength.”

Bush also urged Americans to pray for God’s guidance as the Columbia tragedy, potential war in Iraq and the constant threat of terrorism pose “a testing time for our country.”

“One thing is for certain, we didn’t ask for these challenges, but we will meet them. I say that with certainty because this nation has strong foundations that won’t be shaken,” Bush said at the breakfast, a 51-year-old tradition that brings hundreds of lawmakers, military leaders, foreign heads of state and spiritual leaders together in prayer.

At Tuesday’s service in Houston, Bush joined family members of Columbia’s crew and thousands of NASA employees and other mourners in a poignant tribute to the astronauts, saying “mankind is in their debt” and praising their daring and discipline.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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