The power of President Bush's words as he sought to bring comfort to a hurting nation still ring through the emptiness I feel in my heart since hearing of the loss of the brave men and women aboard the Columbia:
In the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing." The same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth, yet we can pray that all are safely home.
Although we cannot know the grief the families of these astronauts feel right now, we can tell them, as did President Bush on Saturday, that their fallen loved ones always will have "the respect and gratitude of this country."
We marvel at what they go through to become astronauts. They are truly the best and brightest of our times - remarkably developed physically and mentally, extremely disciplined personally. These are people who excelled at every stage of their education, training and preparation.
India has more than 1 billion people, but only one has made the cut and become an astronaut, and she died aboard the craft. Israel has 65 million and an education system the equal of any in the world. Yet, until this mission, none had gone into space. The Americans on the mission all had served with distinction in the military.
Since Rick Husband, the mission commander, watched the Mercury liftoff at age 4 in Amarillo, Texas, he'd known he wanted to be an astronaut and worked his entire life toward that goal. Willie McCool, one of the few members of his Naval Academy graduating class to attend graduate school at Navy expense, was remembered by classmates as "an extremely rare confluence of brains, leadership, toughness, athleticism and modesty."
Aware that his status as one of the few African-American astronauts gave him unique opportunities to inspire others, Michael P. Anderson, the payload specialist, spoke often to school groups. He told one such group that, one day, humans would land on Mars. "I'll probably be too old by then," he told the youngsters. "But you guys will be just about the right age."
Dave Brown, who grew up in Arlington, Va., not far from where I live, worked hard at the space station. He also took time to do what I'd do up there - marvel at the wonder of it all, at the beauty of the Earth spinning slowly on its axis, perpetually turning its peaceful, angelically blue face to reveal yet more of its beauty.
"If I'd been born in space, I would desire to visit the beautiful Earth more than I ever yearned to visit space," he wrote in an e-mail from the space station to his parents. "It's a wonderful planet."
These would be his final words to his family.
They take these enormous risks - and, as President Bush said, "In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine," they are acutely aware of these risks - because they are special. They are cut from a different cloth. And they used these gifts and assumed these risks for the sake of all mankind.
Several years ago, my husband and children and I had the rare opportunity to be at the Kennedy Space center for a shuttle launch. Astronaut Dan Bursch, a classmate of my husband's from the U. S. Naval Academy, invited us to be with his family to share in the special moment. As we sat with the family members of all the astronauts and watched their loved ones break free from the Earth's outer forces and blast toward the darkness of space, the pride and rush and, yes, even fear, over their sons and husbands venturing into the unknown was almost overwhelming.
The day before lift-off, the spouses and parents of these mighty explorers had said their goodbyes over a ditch that separated them in an effort to protect them from viruses or illnesses at the last minute. Since the terrible tragedy on Saturday, I've wondered if the parents and spouses of those aboard the ill-fated Columbia have been dreaming about those last precious gazes into the eyes of their loved ones. For all of those who can't understand what the space program does or why we spend so much money on it or why we put these people at risk, there really are easy answers. They go so perhaps one day no one will slowly succumb to the pain of cancer or know the desperation that comes when emphysema finally shuts the doors to our lungs. They go so that perhaps one day we'll be able to nullify the effects of pollution or fuel our cars, homes, offices and churches without oil or coal, thanks to our exploration of space. They venture into the great unknown because not to go would be to slam the door on an endless source of information, new discoveries and methods to better the lives of all mankind.
"The cause in which they died will continue," President Bush said on Saturday. "Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on." It will and it should. With our prayers. And with our thanks.
Rebecca Hagelinis a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, a research and educational think-tank whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values and a strong national defense. She is also the former vice president of communications for WorldNetDaily and her 60-second radio commentaries can be heard on the Salem Communications Network.
Reprinted with permission of the Internet newspaper WorldNetDaily.com.