With flower leis, speeches and a piper playing “Amazing Grace,” NASA and the families of the shuttle Columbia's crew dedicated a memorial to the fallen astronauts Monday at Arlington National Cemetery.
Under a white tent, an honor guard of astronauts unveiled a stone monument with a bronze plaque bearing the symbol of Columbia’s last mission, the names of the seven crew members and the inscription, “In memory of the crew of United States Space Shuttle Columbia, 1 February 2003.”
The ceremony came a year and a day after Columbia disintegrated over Texas. The head of the space agency and other NASA officials gathered with the families of the dead for the memorial, which was broadcast live on NASA Television.
“Today we remember and commemorate the undaunted courage of seven true heroes for our time and for all time,” NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said of the Columbia crew.
“They were pilots, engineers and scientists, all motivated by a fire within, a passionate eternal flame that burned in their souls, that compelled them to live lives of distinction and to bring the heavens ever closer to our grasp,” O’Keefe said.
The ceremony was attended by families of the Columbia crew: Rick Husband, commander; William McCool, pilot; Michael Anderson, payload commander; David Brown, mission specialist; Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; Laurel Blair Salton Clark, mission specialist, and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist and the first Israeli astronaut.
O’Keefe said the living memorial to the Columbia astronauts was President Bush’s “vision for space exploration” that was announced last month, which aims to send Americans back to the moon by 2020 and eventually on to Mars.
“Generations from now when the reach of human civilization is extended throughout our solar system, people will still come to this place to learn, to pay their respects to our heroic Columbia astronauts,” O’Keefe said.
After speeches by O’Keefe and others, prayers by military chaplains, hymns sung by the U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants and a performance of the song "Way Up There" by singer Patti LaBelle, mourners walked by the new monument, some draping flower leis over the stone, others plucking white roses from a nearby wreath as mementos.
At the end of the ceremony, a bagpiper played “Amazing Grace.”
The Columbia memorial is not far from a monument honoring the seven crew members who died aboard the shuttle Challenger in 1986. Astronauts who died in the 1967 Apollo 1 fire are also buried at Arlington, O’Keefe said.
All three crews were honored last Thursday at what O’Keefe said he expected would be an annual day of remembrance for fallen astronauts.
The three crews were also honored on Mars, where the Spirit rover’s landing site was named the Columbia Memorial Station, the Opportunity rover’s landing site was named the Challenger Memorial Station, and three hills visible from the Spirit’s site were named for the three members of the Apollo 1 crew.
The remaining three space shuttles have been grounded since the Columbia accident. The earliest possible return to shuttle flight is this September.