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HOUSTON - U. S. President George W. Bush will meet today with the families of the seven astronauts who died in the Columbia shuttle disaster. The president, who is due to attend a memorial service tomorrow at NASA's Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston, requested to meet personally with the families of all of the astronauts. On Saturday, shortly after hearing of the disaster, Bush spoke with Rona Ramon, the wife of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.

Late Sunday evening, relatives of the astronauts met at the home of the widow of mission commander Rick Husband. "It was a very emotional and tearful event," said Ilan Ramon's father, Eliezer Wolferman. The families discussed preparations for the memorial service and talked about their loved ones.

Rona Ramon described the families of the astronauts as one extended family. They had lived closely in the past two years in which the astronauts trained together for the space shuttle mission.

Sunday's gathering was a tragic reminder of a get-together held by the astronauts and their families a day before the shuttle lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The atmosphere at the gathering was elated and the families later told of the close friendship between the crew members and their excitement ahead of the space mission.

Eliezer Wolferman, who arrived in Houston on Sunday together with Ilan Ramon's brother, Rona Ramon's sister and several other family members, received on his arrival a final souvenir from his son. Rona Ramon gave him a photograph of the seven crew members dressed in space suits that Ilan had left for him before departing on his last mission. On the photo Ilan Ramon had written: "Daddy. By now we are in space. On this day I am very proud to be your son." Wolferman carried the picture with him in Houston yesterday and wore the shuttle crew's lapel pin.

The day before the ill-fated landing, Wolferman exchanged e-mails with his son. Ilan wrote his father that he was preparing for the landing and Wolferman replied "You are probably packing your bags now. Don't forget your tooth brush." Wolferman never received a reply to his last correspondence, but believes that further messages from his son's last day in space await him on his computer at home in Israel.

Members of the Ramon family said yesterday that NASA, the Israel Air Force and the State of Israel were standing behind them. Ilan Ramon's brother Gadi said that in a conversation with NASA representatives the Ramons had asked whether the astronauts had suffered before their deaths.

He said they had assured the families that the break-up of the shuttle happened very quickly and that no more than 60 to 90 seconds passed from the moment mission control found out there was a problem with the shuttle until the spacecraft blew up.