U.S. President George W. Bush Saturday sent his condolences to the families of the seven astronauts killed when the space shuttle Columbia broke up minutes before its landing. President Bush says U.S. space exploration will continue.
In a nationwide address, President Bush said all Americans share the grief of the families of the seven astronauts who died.
"This day has brought terrible news and great sadness to our country. At 9 o'clock this morning, mission control in Houston lost contact with our space shuttle Columbia," he said. " A short time later, debris was seen falling from the skies above Texas. The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors."
Mr. Bush says the astronauts knew the dangers of space flight, and faced them willingly. He says they will be missed all the more because of their courage and daring and idealism.
"In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere of the earth," Mr. Bush said.
The president told the astronauts' families that their loved ones will always have the respect and gratitude of the country. He said the cause in which they died will continue.
"Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand," the president said. "Our journey into space will go on. In the skies today, we saw destruction and tragedy, yet father than we can see, there is comfort and hope." A Bush administration official says, there is no indication that terrorism was involved, but the incident is being investigated fully. Flight controllers lost contact with the space shuttle at an altitude of about 61,000 meters, well beyond the range of surface-to-air missiles.
The president was notified of the disaster shortly after it happened, and spoke with NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe about 10:30 a.m. local time. Mr. Bush then decided to return to the White House from the presidential retreat at Camp David, where he was scheduled to spend the weekend.
Just before the president's arrival, the White House flag was lowered to half-staff.
Mr. Bush telephoned the families of the astronauts who were waiting for the shuttle's landing in Florida. White House spokesman Scott McClellan says, Mr. Bush "expressed love and appreciation for all who died," and said millions of Americans are praying for the families.
The president met with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who is coordinating emergency response teams. Mr. Ridge telephoned local officials in the states of Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Arizona about procedures for collecting debris from the fallen shuttle. The U.S. space agency is warning civilians to stay away from any debris, as it may contain hazardous materials.
The president also spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as one of the astronauts was Israeli air force Colonel Ilan Ramon.
Mr. McClellan says, the president expressed his deep condolences to Mr. Ramon's family, and the prime minister extended his condolences to the American people.
Mr. Ramon was the first Israeli to fly in space. His presence on the flight brought about increased security, both at the launch and its expected landing.
President Bush also received calls of condolences from the leaders of Mexico, Canada, Russia, and France.