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Bush Vows to Continue Exploring Space, Increasing Shuttle Funding

By Anne Q. Hoy

President Bush Monday vowed to continue space exploration in the wake of the Columbia shuttle tragedy, as Congress raised questions about whether cost overruns at other NASA programs hampered the shuttle’s safety.

“While we grieve the loss of these astronauts, the cause of which they died will continue,” Bush said during an appearance at the National Institutes of Health in suburban Maryland Monday. “America’s journey into space will go on.”

Bush again paid tribute to the lost seven-member crew, saying they will be remembered for “their achievements, their heroism and their sense of wonder.” The president added, “Their 16-day mission held the promise of answering scientific problems that elude us here on Earth.”

Earlier, Bush received a 45-minute briefing in the Oval Office from National Aeronautics and Space Administration Administrator Sean O’Keefe. O’Keefe, a former Navy secretary and former director of the Office of Management and Budget, reviewed the chronology that led to the disaster and he and Bush spoke about the surviving families and morale at NASA, especially among members of the next shuttle crew, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. O’Keefe then met Monday night behind closed doors with 16 key congressional leaders.

Even before the catastrophe, Bush had called for increasing spending on the shuttle program to $3.9 billion from $3.2 billion, a level included in the fiscal 2004 budget sent to Congress Monday. The president’s budget proposal requested a smaller overall increase for NASA, seeking $15.5 billion, a $469 million increase, for fiscal 2004. The added shuttle funding would come from planned cost savings in other NASA programs.

Fleischer did not rule out possible requests for additional funding. He said the administration “is making no conclusions” whether funding affected safety.