msnbc.com staff and news service reports

Surrounded by thousands of grieving NASA astronauts, engineers and their families, President Bush on Tuesday led a poignant tribute to Columbia’s seven crew members, saying “mankind is in their debt” and praising their daring and discipline.

“America's space program will go on,” Bush declared in the outdoor ceremony, held beneath a clear blue sky and a few wisps of white clouds.

Thousands of people bunched together on a mass of green lawn stretching more than 200 yards from the white, square-shaped building that houses Mission Control to a series of engineering buildings and the headquarters here.

Bush bowed his head and first lady Laura Bush dabbed tears as the men and women who perished in the space shuttle disaster were memorialized at the home of Mission Control.

“Each of these astronauts had the daring and the discipline required of their calling,” Bush said of the fallen astronauts as members of his audience cried. “Each of them knew great endeavors are inseparable from great risk, and each of them accepted those risks willingly, even joyfully, in the cause of discovery,” Bush said.

“The grief is heavy, our nation shares in your sorrow and in your pride,” the president said speaking to relatives of the seven astronauts. “And today we remember not only one moment of tragedy but seven lives of great purpose and achievement.”

‘Grief is overwhelming’
Earlier, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe told those gathered at the Johnson Space Center that “our grief is overwhelming.”

“Our duty now,” he said, “is to provide comfort to the families of the Columbia crew.”

“We will persevere,” he vowed after recalling the joy that the seven astronauts had brought to the space agency.

The ceremony, which began at 1 p.m. ET, was restricted to NASA employees and relatives, but is being televised nationally. It will include a flyover by military jets above the center, where mission control lost contact with the shuttle before it disintegrated above the Texas skies last Saturday.

A second service was planned for Thursday at the National Cathedral in Washington.

Those traveling with the president and Laura Bush to Houston included former Sen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, and Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon.

“It’s too bad we couldn’t have pushed this day back forever,” Glenn said Monday.

Challenger, Reagan inspiration
The White House indicated it was drawing inspiration from President Ronald Reagan, who delivered one of the most eloquent speeches of his presidency after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

“Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short,” Reagan said on Jan. 31, 1986, to a crowd of 10,000 at Johnson, home of Mission Control, the nerve center of space shuttle flights. “But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain.”

Just as Reagan promised that “man will continue his conquest of space, to reach out for new goals and greater achievements,” Bush declared Monday: “America’s journey into space will go on.”

And just as Reagan gave highly personal tributes to each of the seven crew members lost on the Challenger, Bush planned to celebrate the individual stories of each astronaut.

“It’s going to be a tribute to the lives lost,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. “It will be a comfort to the families and the nation and it will be a rededication to the mission of space exploration.”

An uneasy time
Ken Khachigian, who wrote speeches for Reagan and President Richard Nixon, said Bush should focus on the unique challenges and the “skittish” mood in the nation today.

“Unlike then, the country has been buffeted now by 9-11 and we’re on the brink of a pretty serious military operation in Iraq,” Khachigian said. Many Americans are also gloomy about the economy, he said.

“I’d tell the president, I think the country is looking for a little help and a little uplift and in midst of this somber occasion, you ought to find space to not just comfort, but to provide uplift,” Khachigian said.

Bush should find a middle ground “somewhere between Ronald Reagan’s eulogy and a Churchillian call to defend the beaches,” Khachigian said.

Families: Exploration must go on
On Monday, the families of Columbia’s crew urged the nation to go beyond its grief and pursue “the bold exploration of space” to improve life on Earth for future generations.

“Although we grieve deeply, as do the families of Apollo I and Challenger before us, the bold exploration of space must go on,” said Evelyn Husband, the wife of shuttle commander Rick Husband, reading a statement on behalf of the astronauts’ families on NBC’s “Today” show.

“Once the root cause of this tragedy is found and corrected, the legacy of Columbia must carry on for the benefit of our children and yours.”

Prior to the mission, and aware of its possible dangers, the seven astronauts expressed their desire to see continuation of the space program in the event of an accident.

“Dave said the program will go on, it must go on,” Paul Brown, father of astronaut David Brown, said on “Today.” “We feel that way too.”

Spontaneous memorials
The Bushes joined other Americans who have flocked to the gates of the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The NASA sign at the space center was partly obscured by flowers, teddy bears, candles and U.S. flags. Handwritten notes saluted the Columbia crew.

A note written in a child’s handwriting addressed to Commander Husband said simply, “We’ll miss you.”

The New York Stock Exchange on Monday remembered the shuttle crew with two minutes of silence at 11 a.m.

At Cape Canaveral, Fla., grieving visitors gathered at the tall granite memorial honoring astronauts killed in the line of duty.

Some stood quietly before the 51-foot high, 43-foot wide Space Mirror Memorial, which was built after the 1986 Challenger disaster. Others adorned a white fence in front of it with roses, daises, lilacs and tulips. “May all your dreams continue,” read a card on one bouquet of flowers.

Sheryl Donan knelt with her two sons, Daniel, 3, and Damon, 2, in front of the memorial. “It’s good to grieve with others,” Donan said. “I feel isolated at home, like you’re all alone.”

At the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, visitors paid tribute with flowers and candles.

A copy of the Torah, the Jewish holy book, and handwritten notes accompanied the bouquets. One praised the crew for making the “ultimate sacrifice in the pursuit of knowledge.”

Many came to have their picture taken besides a 12-foot-tall model of the Columbia, sign a condolence book and “connect in a tangible way” with the tragedy, spokeswoman Claire Brown said.

The Senate, for its part, passed a resolution Monday honoring the astronauts and delayed their legislative business until Wednesday so senators can give memorial statements or go to Houston for the memorial service.

“The Senate commemorates with deep sorrow and regret the fate of the Columbia space shuttle mission and when it adjourns today, it does so as a further mark of respect to the astronauts who lost their lives,” the resolution read.

Israel, India in mourning
Astronauts Ilan Ramon and Kalpana Chawla were remembered in their native countries.

At a weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told ministers that Ramon’s death was not in vain and that more Israelis would fly in space. Ramon was a “bold fighter pilot and an outstanding commander,” Sharon said, “a man who did not deserve to be taken from us, along with our hopes, dreams, history and future.”

In India, dozens of people stopped by Chawla’s childhood home, and hundreds gathered at her high school to pray at a makeshift shrine. In the Hindu tradition, incense burned in front of her photograph, which was draped in garlands of marigolds.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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