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Leaders look back at the Columbia tragedy — and look ahead to Mars

Bill Ingalls / NASA

A commemorative wreath adorns a monument to the crew of the shuttle Columbia at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Friday, the 10th anniversary of the shuttle's destruction and the astronauts' deaths.

President Barack Obama and NASA's leaders paid a 10th-anniversary tribute to the space shuttle Columbia's fallen astronauts on Friday — and pledged that the lessons learned would be applied to future space odysseys, including eventual trips to Mars.

"As we undertake the next generation of discovery, today we pause to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice on the journey of exploration," Obama said in a statement released by NASA. "Right now we are working to fulfill their highest aspirations by pursuing a path in space never seen before, one that will eventually put Americans on Mars."

The shuttle Columbia's catastrophic breakup on Feb. 1, 2003, killed seven astronauts, forced a two-year grounding of the three remaining space shuttles and led to stepped-up safety measures at the space agency. The disaster also led Obama's predecessor, President George W. Bush, to plan for the retirement of the shuttle fleet once construction of the International Space Station was complete. The last shuttle mission flew eight years later, in 2011.

Bush's space vision called for a new generation of vehicles to be built for trips back to the moon by 2020 — but Obama shifted the focus of exploration to a near-Earth asteroid in the mid-2020s, with trips to Mars and its moons starting in the mid-2030s.

'We will never forget'
In his own 10th-anniversary statement, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the sacrifices made by the crew of Columbia's last mission will inspire future explorers.

"We will never forget these astronauts, nor all those who have lost their lives carrying out our missions of exploration — the STS-51L Challenger crew; the Apollo 1 crew; Mike Adams, the first in-flight fatality of the space program as he piloted the X-15 No. 3 on a research flight," Bolden said in an agency statement. "These explorers, and their families, have our deepest respect. We work every day to honor and build on their legacy and create the best space program in the world — to infuse it with the life and vitality that they worked so hard to achieve."

Bill Ingalls / NASA

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden looks on as Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin gives a salute during a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on Friday. The ceremony paid tribute to astronauts who died in the Apollo 1 fire of 1967 as well as the 1986 Challenger explosion and the 2003 Columbia tragedy.

Retrace the final, tragic flight of the space shuttle Columbia, from its launch to its catastrophic end on Feb. 1, 2003.

On Friday morning, Bolden laid a wreath in honor of the agency's fallen astronauts at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where monuments to the Columbia and Challenger crews have been erected. Earlier in the week, he attended a spaceflight conference held in Israel to honor Ilan Ramon, that country's first astronaut, who died in the Columbia tragedy. The other victims included Columbia commander Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark.

Memorial ceremonies also were conducted in Texas, where the Columbia wreckage fell to earth, and at Kennedy Space Center's visitor complex in Florida. The focal point of the Florida ceremony was the Space Mirror Memorial, which bears the names of NASA fliers who died in the line of duty.

Roots of the tragedy
At that ceremony, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations, acknowledged that the roots of the Columbia disaster went "all the way back to the first shuttle launch in 1981." Even then, NASA knew that ice and pieces of foam insulation could fly off the shuttle's external fuel tank and strike the orbiter — but the fact that no severe damage was done "reinforced the idea that all was well," Gerstenmaier said.

That view changed dramatically when Columbia was felled. Investigators determined that the leading edge of Columbia's left wing was fatally damaged by a piece of flying foam during launch, setting the stage for the breakup 16 days later during atmospheric re-entry. NASA was reminded that "even small problems can surface as major failures," Gerstenmaier said.

"Ten years ago, it would have been easy to pull back from the frontier of space, and say it was too risky to pursue," he said. "Instead, we dedicated ourselves to improving how we pushed the boundaries of space exploration, and we vowed to continue with our eyes open. We cannot be afraid of risk, and we cannot be ignorant of it, either. Our lasting tribute to those we have lost is to carry on with the cause that they believed was worth the ultimate sacrifice."

Other speakers at the Florida ceremony included Evelyn Husband-Thompson, the widow of Columbia's commander, who has since remarried. She recalled how she and other family members anticipated the return of their loved ones on that fateful Saturday morning 10 years ago, only to be jolted into a nightmare of "fear, uncertainty and horror."


Evelyn Husband-Thompson, the widow of Columbia commander Rick Husband, speaks at a memorial ceremony conducted Friday at the Space Mirror Memorial at Kennedy Space Center's visitor complex.

"The grief journey has been difficult, complicated and surprising," she said. Over the past decade, she has drawn comfort from her friends, her family and her faith. She noted that the Columbia crew's legacy includes educational initiatives, scholarships, museum exhibits, and even the name of the airport near her home in Texas: Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport.

"Just as a forest fire reduces beautiful foliage to ashes, those ashes ultimately become nourishment for new, healthy growth," Husband-Thompson said. "There are indeed small, green shoots of hope that are springing up in our lives."

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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.