U.S. Leaders Vow To Sustain Program

Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 3, 2003

The world mourned the seven fallen astronauts from the space shuttle Columbia yesterday, and America's leaders vowed to make sure their dreams of exploring the unknown and expanding human understanding would not die with them.

It was a day to recall the past, as the Columbia's crew was honored in the United States, Israel and India, in public ceremonies, Internet chats and an endless stream of televised reminiscences.

But there was also a grim focus on the present. NASA investigators reported new evidence of an unexpected heat increase on Columbia's left side minutes before its dramatic disintegration 39 miles above the Texas plains Saturday morning, and retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr. was named to lead an independent investigation into the disaster. There were even bold visions for the future, as guests on Sunday talk shows pledged to beef up the U.S. space program and spoke confidently of manned missions to Mars.

"I believe the will of the American people is that we explore space," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a former shuttle crew member who appeared on several programs. "I hope that can be translated into a vigorous program . . . that will take us to Mars."

Last year, Nelson complained that shuttle safety upgrades were being delayed, and warned that "we are starving the shuttle budget, greatly increasing the chances of catastrophic loss."

NASA's budget has been flat for the last decade, and Bush proposed nearly $ 800 million in cuts in manned flight programs last year. But yesterday, an administration official said the president today will propose a $ 470 million increase in NASA's $ 15 billion overall budget, and that the new investigation will address whether budget problems played a role in the tragedy.

On Tuesday, the president will speak at a memorial service for the Columbia crew in Houston.

"From the president's point of view, the mission of science and the marvels of space exploration will go on," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said. "He wants to make certain that no stone is unturned, to get to the bottom of this."

The nation yesterday began to pick up the pieces from the tragedy -- emotionally, but also literally. Hundreds of local, state and federal law enforcement officials, as well as military personnel, fanned out across a "debris belt" covering more than 200 square miles of East Texas, where they found chunks of metal, a flight helmet, a 4-foot-wide cylinder, and a mission patch with the names of all seven astronauts. But authorities warned that these early finds in more than 800 locations may represent the shuttle's "low-hanging fruit," and that the area's rugged forest terrain -- known locally as the Big Thicket -- could frustrate more elaborate recovery efforts.

At a late-afternoon briefing in Houston, NASA official Robert Cabana announced that recovery teams have discovered remains from all seven astronauts. "It's still in the process of identification," he said.

But last night, NASA corrected his statement, saying that so far remains from some victims, but not all, had been found. They will be taken to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where the bodies of the Challenger astronauts were taken 17 years ago.

Meanwhile, mission director Ronald D. Dittemore said investigators are "gaining ground" as they try to solve the mystery of why the Columbia broke apart about 1,000 miles from the end of a 6-million-mile journey, shortly after reentering the Earth's atmosphere. He revealed an intricate web of new data from the Columbia's final minutes, including sensor recordings of excess heat in the left wheel well and excess drag on the left side. Dittemore said investigators will study whether the problems were caused by a chunk of foam that may have damaged tiles on the left wing during liftoff, but he cautioned that it is much too early to speculate on the cause.

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