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Gary Younge
Space exploration will go on, Bush pledges as US mourns

Led by President George Bush, thousands of grieving space workers and their families, friends and neighbours paid tribute to the seven astronauts who died on the space shuttle Columbia at the weekend.

"Their mission was almost complete and we lost them so close to home," Mr Bush said as his wife Laura wiped away tears at the private memorial on the lawn of the Lyndon Johnson space centre in Houston. Thousands outside listened to the ceremony, and millions tuned in to the broadcast around the country.

Vowing that the space programme would go on, Mr Bush said: "Each of these astronauts had the daring and the discipline required of their calling. Each of them knew great endeavours are inseparable from great risk, and each accepted those risks willingly in the cause of discovery."

The president and his wife arrived shortly before midday with the former US senator John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth, and Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.

But thousands of local people gathered from early in the morning outside the space agency's headquarters, where they placed flowers, balloons, flags and poems in tribute to the astronauts. While most stood tearfully and in sombre mood, spontaneous, sporadic renditions of God Bless America broke out among the crowd.

Elsewhere throughout Texas yesterday, more, crucial fragments of the Columbia were being discovered. The shuttle's nose cone was found close to the Louisiana border, while a possibly vital electronic component was recovered in Nacogdoches county.

Nasa investigators were meanwhile told to "assume" that the piece of insulation foam that fell from the shuttle shortly after launch in January was responsible for the accident and work out how.

Houston, the home of space exploration, saw little debris. But while the protracted, powerful boom that accompanied the disintegration of the shuttle as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere was not heard here, the emotional after shocks were deeply.

"I didn't know where else to come. I wanted to be part of it," said Karen Davies, who had brought her two young children to listen to the tributes. "Space technology is so much a part of this town."

"After what they went through it would be disrespectful not to take time out of your day just to think about them," Hernando Ortega said of the seven dead astronauts.

In the city still recovering from the collapse of Enron, Nasa - which employs around 3,000 civil servants and 14,000 contractors - is vital to the local economy.

Yesterday the people of Houston invoked the pioneering spirit on which the town was founded.

"This is a city that cries, wipes its eyes and moves on," said a local councillor, Gordon Quan. "We don't dwell on history."

"We're a young city, and we still think tomorrow's going to be better than today," added Ron Stone, a veteran local broadcaster.

Mr Bush took to his seat unannounced, bringing a solemn silence with him. And then came the families, walking slowly to the tune of O God Our Help in Ages Past, sung by the Navy Sea Chanters. Mrs Bush kept brushing tears from her eyes as her hsuband sat with his head bowed.

From the podium, Sean O'Keefe, the Nasa adminstrator, carefully provided an image not just of a crew, but of seven individuals, introducing the congregation to their personal and collective foibles. There was Michael Anderson, the payload commander - the quiet type unless you asked him about his Porsche - and Laurel Clark, who had a different coloured pastel crew shirt for every day of the week.

And then there was their soft-toy mascot, the hamster that played Kung-Fu-Fighting whenever you squeezed it.

Mr O'Keefe's voice and composure faltered only once, when he described how the Indian-born astronaut Kalpana Chawla had gathered the others on the mission around her to see the Earth reflected in her eye.

Naval captain Kent Rominger, chief of the astronauts' office, also recalled each of the crew's personal idiosyncrasies and quirks that helped make the seven especially close. One by one, he enumerated their strengths, recalling, for example, how naval flight surgeon David Brown had been a longtime bachelor and "as such, was in constant search for food" - a comment that drew a ripple of laughter from the audience.

"I know you're listening," Mr Rominger said, as he finished by calling each of the seven on the fatal mission by name. "Please know you're in our hearts and we will always smile when we think of you."

After Mr Bush's tribute there was a prayer and the bell tolled seven times. And then a roar in the sky as four T-38 jets, flown by astronauts, soared overhead in the "missing man" formation.

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