Across the United States, people are mourning the seven crew members of the space shuttle Columbia. At the shuttle launch site at Cape Canaveral, Florida, local residents feel a special connection with the space program, and for whom the Columbia disaster is especially painful.
A small bouquet of flowers in hand, Bill Berkowitz stands in line at the Kennedy Space Center to sign a book of condolences for family members of the astronauts who died. The signing took place at a memorial engraved with the names of those who have perished in America's four-decade manned space program, and where seven new names are soon to be added.
Mr. Berkowitz said he felt drawn to the Kennedy Space Center, where the orbiter was supposed to land Saturday. "I've grown up with the space program [and followed it] since I was a little kid. Living in Florida, I have seen them (spacecraft) take off and land. It just seems that this is an appropriate place to be to pay respects," he said.
Mr. Berkowitz said it is a national tragedy. "This is another tragedy the country has to live with. We grieve and we move on. We learn and we get better for it," he said. "We learned from the other tragedies in the space program. It is never easy, but there is always progress made, and that is what this country is about."
Also visiting the Kennedy Space Center was retired aerospace worker William Cherry, who helped design critical equipment for the space program in the 1960's. Mr. Cherry, who lives in Washington, was visiting Florida when he learned of the shuttle disaster, and decided to make a side-trip to Cape Canaveral. "I actually worked on the moon-landing camera for Westinghouse [corporation]. I had my fingerprints on [my work when into] that camera that went to the moon. And I am very proud of that. And I can mark my entire life, every event, with the space program," he said. "I feel really, really down-hearted today because of this tragedy. But we will move on. That is the spirit of America."
NASA has suspended shuttle flights pending an investigation into the Columbia disaster. That worries residents who work at the Kennedy Space Center, or rely on space-related tourism for their livelihood.
Joe Kaplet operates a citrus orchard and store just outside the space center. He said he vividly remembers the aftermath of the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, when shuttle flights were suspended for more than two years. He said local businesses suffered then. "It was rather severe. The tourist [business] dropped off, and the impact to the business was quite heavy. And we probably expect the same thing now, with the unfortunate Columbia accident," he said.
Mr. Kaplet said local residents feel a special bond with the Kennedy Space Center. He says, over the years, he met several astronauts, who stopped for a glass of orange juice on their way to work. Asked what he felt upon learning the news of the Columbia disaster, Mr. Kaplet was overcome by emotion.