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The final farewell for America's seven newest heroes came on Friday at the Johnson Space Center near Houston, where they had lived and trained. Among those who gathered there, under gray skies on a grassy quadrangle amid the squat modern buildings, were some 6,000 employees of NASA and its contractors, 90 Senators and Congressmen, and about 200 relatives of Challenger's crew. Awaiting the start of the memorial service, while an Air Force band played funeral hymns, some of the mourners stood quietly in clusters, dabbing their eyes, while others stared sadly into space. A few held aloft small American flags as tears ran down their faces.
The President and Nancy Reagan met the families in a sparsely furnished classroom. Reagan picked up Mike Smith's daughter Erin, 8, who was holding a brown teddy bear that wore a pink apron. After embracing most of the relatives, one by one, he said, "We'll all go out together in a few minutes. I wish there was something I could say to make it easier, but there just aren't any words." Yet when the music stopped and he stepped onto the outdoor ; rostrum, Reagan once again found the right words, and he delivered them eloquently.
"The sacrifice of your loved ones has stirred the soul of our nation, and, through the pain, our hearts have been opened to a profound truth," said the President. "The future is not free; the story of all human progress is one of a struggle against all odds. We learned again that this America was built on heroism and noble sacrifice. It was built by men and women like our seven star voyagers, who answered a call beyond duty." After paying individual tributes to each member of the crew, the President declared, "Dick, Mike, Judy, El, Ron, Greg and Christa--your families and your country mourn your passing. We bid you goodbye, but we will never forget you."
The dignified 30-minute ceremony ended with a display of an aerial equivalent of the riderless horse procession, which was impressed indelibly on a mourning nation at the funeral of John Kennedy 22 years ago. Four T-38 jets--the trainers in which all astronauts prepare for their dangerous duties --roared overhead. It would have been a perfect V formation except that a fifth plane was missing, and another symbolic void was created when one of the jets veered sharply away from the others. As the band played God Bless America, the President and the First Lady went down the line of family members, shaking their hands, offering final words of solace, and hugging little Erin and the other children as they began to cry.