Soon after hearing the horrifying news of the Columbia shuttle disaster, killing Indian American astronaut Kalpana Chawla and six other crew members, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called President George W Bush to offer condolences. He could not get through because Bush was in transit from his Camp David retreat to the White House, Indian Ambassador Lalit Mansingh told rediff.com
"The prime minister called President Bush but missed him because he was in transit, but he sent a message which has reached the White House," Mansingh said.
The prime minister would try and reach Bush on Sunday to convey his condolences, Mansingh said, and noted President A P J Abdul Kalam rushed a message to the American president which had been sent to the White House.
The prime minister told Bush: 'Dear Mr President, I am writing to extend to you our heartfelt sympathies at the tragedy, which has overtaken the space shuttle Columbia. We mourn with you in the moment of grief. Our hearts go out to the families of the bright young men and women who were on the spacecraft. For us in India, the fact that one of them was an Indian-born woman adds special poignancy to the tragedy.'
'The world has watched with awe and admiration the achievements of the American space program, challenging the frontiers of scientific technological knowledge. No one can be in any doubt that this unfortunate accident will only spur your scientists and engineers on to even greater achievements in space technologies,' he added.
President Kalam told Bush, "As a member of the space community and also as the President of India, I feel deeply pained to learn about the great loss of the Columbia space shuttle and the brave crew members -- the seven astronauts. Allow me to convey my heartfelt condolences to the members of the bereaved families.'
Kalam recalled, 'It all started with the courage of the brave human beings starting from persons including the Wright brothers who gave marvels in aerospace exploration harnessing it for the benefit for all humanity.'
He predicted 'courage will prevail particularly in the space community and others. I join you in the hour of bereavement and pray to the Almighty to give all of us the strength and courage to bear this and move forward.'
Mansingh said he had not been able to get through to Chawla's family "because they are not in Houston (at the Johnson Space Center), but in Florida. Her parents had gone to see the launch and they are still there. They are in a great state of shock and we want to respect their privacy."
On Sunday, NASA will hold a small memorial function in Houston, he said, "and our consul general Skand Tayal will attend and he will be carrying the Indian flag."
Mansingh, who appeared on Fox Television, said Chawla 'represented youth, hope, aspirations and the marvels of technology. She symbolized so many things. So it was a real tragedy.'
He noted 'a couple of weeks ago, one of our leading magazines India Today had Kalpana Chawla on its cover as a symbol of doing India proud.'
Mansingh said 'hers is such an inspiring story when you learn that Kalpana's parents came as refugees, destitute after Partition in 1947. They rebuilt their lives, they educated their children. Kalpana realized her dreams and aspirations and was a success here."
White House sources said Bush who spoke to the crews' families in a conference call to the Johnson Space Center where they were gathered had condoled with them. He said he wished he could be there 'to personally hug each one of them.'
According to the White House sources, Bush was so upset that he moved to another room to compose himself.
White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card first informed the president about the disaster. Among the first to call Bush was NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe. Iimmediately on his arrival at the White House, the president conferred with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Bush, the sources said, is familiar with the area where the shuttle's debris fell -- it is not far from his ranch in Crawford, Texas.