Students across campus reacted with sadness, shock and worry as they tuned in to news stations to watch footage of the disintegrating Columbia space shuttle, a tragic event eerily reminiscent of the Challenger explosion 17 years ago.

“I was completely blown away,” said junior Jason Hernak, external vice president of the University of Michigan Engineering Council. “Socially, it’s a horrible time for it to happen, given the economy and the threat of war.”

President Bush responded in an address to the nation shortly after the shuttle went down, quoting Scripture and reassuring a commitment to the space program.

“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 but we can pray that all are safely home,” Bush said. “The cause in which they died will continue. Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on.”

The presence on the shuttle of Ilan Ramon – the first Israeli astronaut – created some speculation that terrorism may be the cause of the crash, but FBI spokeswoman Angela Bell said there was no indication of such an attack.

Aerospace engineering senior Marni Rosenthal said she was glad Bush allowed NASA to conduct its own investigation, adding she was also relieved that the investigation was not being carried out under the auspices of homeland security.

NASA halted shuttle launches after the 1986 Challenger explosion until evidence could be gathered and analyzed and changes made.

“This is a tragic thing to happen to the space program,” Rosenthal said. “I think it will set back the space program a couple of years. It will take a long time to find the causes. It’s sort of like after TWA flight 800 – not much is going to survive intact.”

Hemak agreed that finding evidence for the investigation could be difficult. “There’s a lot of panic about the fact that it might be hard to find evidence. There’s no way to prevent accidents in the future if we can’t find out what happened this time,” he said.

Hemak said he felt the crash should not delay the country’s space exploration program. “They shouldn’t stop what they’re doing just because there’s been an accident,” he said. “It’s all based on calculated risk.”

Engineering freshman Greg Berman said the first thing that went through his mind after hearing about the break up was, “Not again.”

Berman said, “We should spend more time developing technology that would be safer and more efficient.”

“For sure we have to look into this to see the causes,” he added.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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