NASA workers and supporters of the US space programme gathered at Cape Canaveral in Florida today to mark the first anniversary of the Columbia catastrophe that claimed the lives of seven astronauts.
“One year ago, at this very hour, the unthinkable occurred,” the director of Kennedy Space Center, Jim Kennedy, told the crowd of a few hundred who gathered on a grey, drizzly morning.
Kennedy quietly cited the names of the seven Columbia astronauts, carved into the black granite memorial behind him.
“They were our friends. They are our heroes. Their loss will not be in vain. We will come back bigger, better and stronger than ever before, and I can assure you that crew and their beloved families will never, ever be forgotten,” he said.
Each of the mourners – shuttle workers, American Indian students whose science experiment went down with Columbia, tourists who believe in the space programme - held a long-stemmed rose.
After the brief outdoor ceremony, one by one, they walked up to the memorial and tucked the red, yellow, peach and ivory-coloured roses in the white grating of the fence.
Many wiped away tears.
Winston Scott, a former astronaut who flew aboard Columbia, said it was a good ship. “But occasionally good ships can run aground. It depends on the winds, the weather, the hands of fate and that’s exactly what happened to Columbia one year ago,” he said.
The ceremony began at 9am (1400 Irish time), the moment communication ceased with Columbia over Texas. It ended at 9:16am (1416 Irish time), the time the spacecraft should have been landing at the runway, just several miles from the NASA memorial.
By then, on February 1, 2003, Columbia had shattered into tens of thousands of pieces and fallen on East Texas and Louisiana, and all seven of its crew were dead.