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Shuttle's loss adds to Bush's burden with budget, possible war

| Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2003

BETHESDA, Md. — President Bush, honoring Columbia's fallen crew, promised Monday to return American astronauts to space, in part to solve mysteries of science "that elude us here on Earth."

Two days after the shuttle's loss, Bush spoke of the crew's commitment to science while promoting his $6 billion plan to help scientists create vaccines and treatments against bioterrorism. "The seven brave men and women from the Columbia will be remembered for their achievements, their heroism and their sense of wonder," Bush said at the National Institutes of Health.

"Our prayers are with their families and their loved ones," said the president, who plans to attend a memorial service today at the Johnson Space Center near Houston. "Their 16-day mission held the promise of answering scientific problems that elude us here on Earth."

Bush noted that the shuttle carried classroom experiments for some American school children.

Earlier, the president summoned NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe to the Oval Office for a morale-boosting session. "You make us proud," the president told Sean O'Keefe.

Bush and the NASA chief discussed the readiness of astronauts to return to space as soon as possible, a White House spokesman said.

The loss of the space shuttle adds a new element to Bush's already bulging portfolio of issues, including a red-ink budget that forces tough decisions on national spending priorities. Bush juggled his schedule to make time for the meeting with O'Keefe and will fly to a memorial service in Houston for the seven-member Columbia crew.

The White House has given a top priority to finding the cause of the accident Saturday, but is not pushing for a presidential commission to study shuttle's demise and the loss of its crew. Fleischer said Bush believes the independent panel and a NASA group investigating the shuttle disaster should be sufficient.

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said O'Keefe told Bush "all causes will be evaluated. All causes." He said O'Keefe and Bush also expressed amazement that no people were hurt by falling debris. Fleischer called that a piece of good news amid tragedy.

He said it is too soon to say how quickly the shuttle program will continue, or whether a new generation of space vehicles is needed.

At the NIH, the president promoted "Project Bioshield" — a $6 billion, 10-year plan to produce vaccines and treatments against biological weapons, such as anthrax and the plague. He is asking Congress for unprecedented authority to research, buy and distribute vaccines and antidotes against bioterrorism pathogens.

A cornerstone of the proposal would give federal health officials the power to stockpile whatever new treatment they deem necessary without first getting permission from Congress.

Also yesterday, the White House released the administration's tax and spending request for the 2004 fiscal year that begins next Oct. 1.

Bush's new spending plan would propose increasing the space agency's funding by about 3 percent to nearly $15.5 billion next year. The shuttle program would increase from $3.2 billion this year to $3.9 billion next year.

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