February 05, 2003 04:11 PM

A bell tolled seven times and more than 12,000 members of the nation’s space community wept for the seven lost Columbia astronauts Tuesday at a solemn 47-minute memorial service at the Johnson Space Center in Texas.

President Bush also vowed that America’s exploration of space would continue.

“The loss was sudden and terrible, and for their families, the grief is heavy. Our nation shares in your sorrow and in your pride,” Bush said during his address, which paid tribute to the heroes whose shuttle broke apart Saturday about 40 miles up at a speed of 12,500 mph.

During the service, the president and First Lady Laura Bush shared the front row of seats with the families of the lost crew.

“We are like a breath,” Rabbi Harold Robinson, captain of the U.S. Naval Research chaplain corps, said at the opening of the ceremony. He took the words of the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik when he declared, “Our days are like a passing shadow.”

President Bush then faced the parents, wives and husbands of astronauts Ilan Ramon, Kalpana Chawla, Mike Anderson, Willie McCool, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark and Dave Brown.

“We send the best among us into unmapped darkness and pray they will return,” Bush told the family survivors. “They go in peace for all of mankind, and all of mankind is in their debt. Yet some explorers do not return, and the loss settles unfairly on a few. The sorrow is lonely, but you are not alone.”

The chief executive also consoled the 12 children who lost parents on Saturday.

“You need to know they loved you, and that love will always be with you,” Bush told them. “They were proud of you. And you can be proud of them for the rest of your life.”

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