Israeli Air Force Col. Ilan Ramon and the six American
astronauts who lost their lives in the Space Shuttle Columbia explosion two years ago would be awarded the
Congressional Gold Medal under legislation introduced Wednesday (Feb. 2) by U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tex.).
The congresswoman acknowledged that she will have to overcome opposition from
colleagues who believe such medals should be awarded only to individuals and be limited to two a year. The House of Representatives on Jan. 26 approved such a measure by U.S. Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del), who argued that Congressional
Gold Medals should be for unique achievements.
" The seven astronauts whose lives were lost in the crash of Space Shuttle Columbia were extraordinary
people," the congresswoman said in a Feb. 2 address to her colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives. "To the world, those astronauts were valiant heroes; to us in Texas, they were also friends and neighbors and family.
"The names we remember today are Rick D. Husband, Michael P. Anderson, Laurel Clark, David M.
Brown, William C. McCool, Kalpana Chawla, and Ilan Ramon. These astronauts were international in
their standing, but united in their commitment to space exploration and helping humanity."
Jackson-Lee recalled that the astronauts "died over the sunny skies of Texas, 200,000 miles in the sky. The
Columbia exploded, but the heart, the courage, the bravery of these young individuals who were willing to go and explore a place where
many of us have not been so that we can live a better life deserves the honor of this body and a
Congressional Gold Medal."
She said that the astronauts "were individuals of the highest caliber, always striving for excellence, and exemplifying the most noble of human traits. They were skilled professionals, scientists, clinicians, adventurers, and family men and women. The crew represented the diversity of our
Nation—black and white, men and women, immigrant and native-born, and included a comrade from Israel embodying the international goals of peace and cooperation...
"These seven courageous explorers paid the ultimate price to improve our understanding of the universe, to advance our medical and engineering sciences, and to make the Nation safer and more secure. Before the
Columbia started its tragic descent, the shuttle crew completed some 80 scientific
experiments. Much of their research data had already been relayed to Houston where it has added to the pool of scientific knowledge."
Jackson-Lee said that in the last session of Congress, she introduced legislation (H.R. 525) "that would have authorized the issuance of Congressional Gold Medals to commemorate our fallen heroes on the Space Shuttle Columbia. Three hundred eighteen of my colleagues in the House of Representatives joined me in the co-sponsorship of that legislation. Nevertheless, the bill never made it to a vote.
"I have reintroduced the bill in the 109th Congress (H.R. 258) authorizing the coinage of a Gold Medal to pay proper tribute to our astronauts. Unfortunately, untimely and ill conceived legislation (H.R. 54) also before the 109th Congress which purports to ``provide reasonable standards for congressional gold medals'' essentially limits the bestowal of this honor to American icons.
"One of the main reasons that the medal is bestowed is to make the highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions. H.R. 54 will summarily restrict this goal and prevent many honored heroes from receiving proper recognition. Provisions in H.R. 54 will specifically exclude the award of Congressional Gold Medals to the Columbia astronauts.
"I hope that my colleagues in this esteemed body will join me in helping to pass legislation that will properly honor our Columbia heroes. I also ask my colleagues to help ensure that those deserving can be recognized by Congress through the issuance of Gold Medals."
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex) did not address the Congressonal Gold Medal issue, but added his tribute to the Space Shuttle astronauts.
"That day, our space program, brought low by tragedy, began a new ascent in the hard, hard work of discovery," DeLay said.
"Because no organization works with higher stakes, no organization has ever had to be as good as NASA at recovering from mistakes and adapting to new and more dangerous challenges. That is why, as we remember the Columbia seven, those of us still inspired by America's mission in space joined our sorrow with hope when we heard the news that the shuttle could soon return to flight.
"NASA's `'Return to Flight Task Force' reported this week that the space shuttle Discovery could be cleared to fly again as early as this summer. This news is not only great...but noble.
"...Intrepid, wise, and good, the Columbia seven—sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, parents and
friends—left us that day two years ago, but their souls echo still in the brave and brilliant they left behind at NASA. The shuttle will fly...and the Columbia seven wouldn't have it any other way. So today, we remember, we mourn, and we hope, confident as Americans always are, that those who died in a quest to conquer ignorance can never die in vain.