One year after Columbia broke apart and fell in flaming streaks from the Texas sky, NASA workers who launched the shuttle and its seven astronauts and then gathered up the remains stood united in sorrow Sunday at the precise moment of destruction.
The first anniversary of the catastrophe was a time for everyone _ rocket engineers, debris searchers, schoolchildren, space enthusiasts, even football fans _ to pause and remember.
"One year ago, at this very hour, the unthinkable occurred," Kennedy Space Center's director, Jim Kennedy, told the crowd of a few hundred who gathered on a gray, drizzly morning at NASA's astronauts memorial.
Kennedy quietly recited the names of the Columbia astronauts, carved into the black granite monument behind him: Commander Rick Husband, co-pilot William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark and Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon.
"They were our friends. They are our heroes. Their loss will not be in vain. We will come back bigger, better and stronger than ever before, and I can assure you that crew and their beloved families will never, ever be forgotten," Kennedy said.
Almost all of the mourners held a long-stemmed rose. After the brief outdoor ceremony, they tucked the red, yellow, peach and ivory-colored roses into the white fence surrounding the memorial.
Many wiped away tears.
The ceremony began at 9 a.m., the instant NASA lost communication with Columbia over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003.
It ended at 9:16 a.m., the time the spacecraft should have landed on the Kennedy Space Center runway. By then, Columbia had shattered into tens of thousands of pieces that crashed down on Texas and Louisiana.
A piece of fuel-tank foam insulation had torn a hole in Columbia's left wing during the mid January liftoff and allowed hot atmospheric gases to enter during atmospheric re-entry.
Tributes also were held in many of the East Texas towns where the wreckage fell. The husbands of the two women who died aboard Columbia attended a memorial in Hemphill.
Jean-Pierre Harrison said he wanted to thank the people who recovered the remains of his wife, Kalpana Chawla. "You are among the best America has to offer."
Dr. Jon Clark, a NASA neurologist who was married to astronaut Laurel Clark, said going to East Texas was "like coming home."
"This is where the crew came home and this is where I wanted to be," Clark said.
In Houston, where the Columbia astronauts lived and Mission Control is located, the biggest salute was saved for last _ the Super Bowl. The Columbia astronauts' families were invited, along with NASA's top officials.
The remembrances stretched around the planet. In northern Israel near the Sea of Galilee, Ramon's widow, four children and 80-year-old father gathered with friends and relatives and placed flowers on his tombstone. Youngsters in Karnal, India, Chawla's hometown, recited prayers at the high school where she studied three decades earlier.
NASA's first American Indian astronaut, John Herrington, holds a ceremonial pipe tobacco bag at the Kennedy Space Center on Sunday. "This is the place where we leave the face of the Earth," he said. "But there's one group who didn't return _ and they're still on their journey."