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The Columbia tragedy

ByWolf Blitzer
CNN

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Crew members of the shuttle Columbia.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It didn't take long for my producers, camera crews and I to get to the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Saturday. We, of course, knew that the explosion of the shuttle Columbia was an awful development that required extraordinary CNN coverage.

Upon arriving at the space center, I saw a moving and spontaneous outpouring of grief for the 7 astronauts and their families. There was -- and still is -- a makeshift memorial just outside the main gate. People are showing up with flowers, balloons, poems, pictures and other mementos. Many of them simply stand there and reflect on this horrendous tragedy.

These 7 men and women were among the best and brightest of our space travelers. They deserve to be in all of our prayers.

Their families also deserve to know what went so tragically wrong. "We're going to collect the evidence, let the evidence speak for itself, and let the facts speak for themselves," the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Sean O'Keefe, tells me. "And as we come to a conclusion on what the cause of the accident was, we're not ruling anything out at this juncture."

O'Keefe is a straight shooter. I have known him since my days covering the Pentagon during the Persian Gulf War when he was a top aide to then-Defense Secretary (and now Vice President) Dick Cheney. He has an awful assignment now in leading the nation through this investigation, and then getting the United States space program back on track. "We're starting with the opportunity to look at every single possibility of what could have gone wrong."

After the 1986 Challenger explosion that also killed 7 astronauts, then-President Ronald Reagan organized a presidential commission of inquiry chaired by former Secretary of State William Rogers. O'Keefe has already organized a blue ribbon outside panel to investigate. I suspect that if the questions multiply in the coming days and weeks, and if current and former NASA officials and other outside experts continue to claim there were serious safety problems in the entire shuttle program, the pressure will mount on President Bush to do the same thing.


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