From a plateau far above the Earth that few have reached, five astronauts paused Sunday to thank seven colleagues who died trying to rocket into space.
"They were our fellow sojourners; they were our friends," George D. Nelson said of the crew of the space shuttle Challenger as the shuttle Discovery glided over the Pacific.
Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith A. Resnik, Ronald E. McNair, Gregory B. Jarvis and Sharon Christa McAuliffe were killed when the Challenger exploded shortly after launch on Jan. 28, 1986.
'Resumed the Journey'
"Today, up here where the blue sky turns to black, we can say at long last . . . dear friends, we have resumed the journey that we promised to continue for you," Discovery commander Frederick H. Hauck said in a memorial to the Challenger crew in which each of the orbiting astronauts took part. "Dear friends, your loss has meant that we could confidently begin anew. Dear friends, your spirit and your dream are still alive in our hearts."
And, Nelson declared in the brief ceremony, which preceded a press conference with reporters in Houston: "At this moment our place in the heavens makes us feel closer to them than ever before." Astronaut David C. Hilmers briefly described the view from space as seen by television audiences around the world.
"As we watch along with you, many emotions well up in our hearts--joy, for America's return to space, gratitude, for our nation's support through difficult times, thanksgiving for the safety of our crew, reverence for those whose sacrifice made our journey possible."
Pilot Richard O. Covey noted that, as the spacecraft orbits the Earth, "less than 200 miles separates us from the remainder of mankind.
"But lest we ever forget that these few miles represent a great gulf--that to ascend through this seemingly tranquil sea will always be fraught with danger--let us remember the Challenger crew whose voyage was so tragically short," Covey said. "With them we shared a common purpose. With them we shared a common goal."
Prepared in Advance
The brief presentation was prepared in advance by the members of the flight crew, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration official said.
Astronaut John M. Lounge was asked later in the press conference if he would discuss the personal thoughts of the Discovery's crewmen as they talked among themselves about their fallen colleagues.
"Those aren't the kind of things you share," Lounge said. "But we've done a lot of thinking about our friends that we lost 2 1/2 years ago. And I've done a lot of contemplating on that personally as I've drifted off to sleep at night. And it's good to be back where they wanted to go so badly."
Jane Smith, wife of the Challenger co-pilot, said she was moved by the Discovery astronauts' tribute.
"The crew of the Challenger would be very proud," she said, her voice filled with emotion. "I feel their spirit is soaring with Discovery and trust that it will return them here safely. I'm so touched. I realize how Mike felt about this crew and the space program. I feel it could not have been better said."
'Very Moving and Very Fitting'
Marvin Resnik said from his home in Encinitas, Calif., that the Discovery crew's words were a "fine tribute" to his daughter--"very moving and very fitting."
"We're happy they took the time out from their work to remember those that went before," he said. "She (Judith Resnik) devoted her whole life to NASA . . . . If there were such a thing as coming back to see what happened to one, I'm sure this is what they all wanted, to see their work carried on."
In the Discovery press conference, Hauck, the mission's skipper, said there was a brief moment during the early stages of the Discovery's flight when he wondered if his crew was going to make it. About 15 seconds after liftoff a warning buzzer sounded in the cockpit.
"That got our attention real quick," he said.
Moments later, crew members realized that the alarm did not mean they were in jeopardy because it concerned a fuel cell used to generate electricity after reaching orbit. Still later, they learned that the buzz was a false alarm.
More Concern Than Expected
Other members of the crew revealed that they were a little more concerned about this flight--the first since Challenger--than they had expected to be.
"It certainly was a lot more anxiety-producing than we had anticipated, or at least (than) I had," Covey said of the launch. "I had forgotten what it was like to accelerate at three Gs (three times the force of Earth's gravity) for a sustained period of time and how helpless you really feel during that time period."
But all in all, "we couldn't have been happier," Hauck said.
Meanwhile, NASA officials and members of Congress commented on America's future in space in television interviews Sunday. NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher, in an appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation," said the United States must take advantage of the space agency's demonstration that it can regroup after disaster.
"The whole world watches when we are successful and the whole world watches when we have a failure," Fletcher said. "How can we lead the rest of the world if we give up something like manned space?
Argument for Expenditures
"It's a small part of the federal budget, about 1% or perhaps less. As long as it stays in there, no one is going to notice the expenditures on space, but they certainly would notice it if we gave up on the manned space program."
Navy Capt. Robert L. Crippen, head of NASA's shuttle program, said on the same program that the space agency has realized that it cannot depend exclusively on the space shuttle and must have a "mix" of shuttles and a stock of unmanned expendable rockets. "It is important that we do have expendables and we have a balanced program," he said.
In an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) called the space shuttle program "a fiscal disaster," even though proposed flights have been scaled back to 10 or 12 per year from an original plan for 50 flights annually.
Noting that U.S. officials have said their goal is a manned trip to Mars within the next 12 to 15 years, Proxmire said costs of such a project would run to "half a trillion dollars.
'We'd Get There Faster'
"There's no reason . . . we couldn't do this in collaboration with the Soviet Union. We'd get there faster (and) the burden on the American people would be reduced by three-quarters . . . . "
Rep. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who was a passenger on a shuttle flight, said on the same show that, although he fully supports the shuttle program, he also endorses "us going to Mars with other countries, including the Soviets.
"If in the next century we went to Mars with the Soviets, it would remake the politics of planet Earth," Nelson said.
The Discovery crew spent the rest of the day after the press conference Sunday closing out the 12 experiments conducted during the four-day flight and preparing to land today at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California.
The landing, set for 9:37 a.m., may come just in time. Late Sunday, as it has in other shuttle flights, the toilet broke.