WASHINGTON, Feb. 1 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush paid tribute Saturday to the seven Columbia crew members who were lost as their space shuttle broke up at the end of a 16-day mission, calling them men and women who assumed great risk in service to humanity.
"The Columbia is lost; there are no survivors," Bush said during a televised address from the White House.
Bush spoke to a grieving nation stunned over the loss of the crew members who were killed as their shuttle traveling at more than 18 times the speed of sound and 200,000 feet above Texas broke apart. The shuttle was just minutes away from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Mission Control in Houston lost contact with the shuttle at 9 a.m. EST, as it traveled over eastern Texas. A frantic investigation was launched to find out what had happened to the shuttle and its crew.
Killed in the disaster were shuttle commander Rick D. Husband, pilot William C. McCool, payload specialists Michael P. Anderson and Ilan Ramon, of Israel, and mission specialists Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, and Laurel P. Clark.
Ramon was Israel's first astronaut.
"The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home," Bush said.
The president said that in an age when space flight has come to appear almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of traveling by rocket.
"These astronauts knew the dangers and they faced them willingly knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life. Because of their courage and daring and idealism, we will miss them all the more," Bush said
Bush had rushed back to the White House from Camp David, about two hours outside Washington, after NASA officials informed him they had lost contact with the shuttle. Forgoing his presidential limousine, Bush arrived shortly after noon in a van.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Chief of Staff Andrew Card were with the president at Camp David. Rice returned to Washington ahead of the president, who assembled his top advisers upon reaching the Oval Office at about 12:30 p.m.
Card had seen the first televised reports of a problem shortly after 9 a.m. and called the White House Situation Room. He also called NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe but couldn't reach him, and then informed the president.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help coordinate recovery and clean-up efforts at the debris site, which is reported to expand across two states.
A White House official speaking on background said there is "no reason to believe there are any links to terrorism," but said the crash is being fully investigated.
O'Keefe said the president "specifically offered full and immediate support" to deal with the tragedy.
Bush telephoned families of the crew group to offer them his condolences. In his speech, Bush told family members their loved ones' contributions would not be forgotten.
"You are not alone. Our entire nation grieves with you and those you love will always have the respect and gratitude of this country," he said.
At about 1:25 p.m., Bush spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to express his condolences over the loss of his nation's first astronaut.
It was the first such tragedy to occur since the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after lift-off 17 years ago this month. It is also the first time in the space program's 42-year history of manned flight that human life has been lost on re-entry.