See, I don't feel 'pity' for the Columbia crew. They weren't victims. They were well aware of how precarious space flight in the early 21st Century is. And they died doing what they loved, what they dreamed of, after having experienced two weeks of something none of us will ever get to see or do.
For the chance to, for once, actually TRANSCEND this banal, mundane existence, and the gravity that holds us all down like prisoners, I would certainly accept the risk. I believe spending two weeks in orbit onboard the shuttle would be about the closest an atheist such as myself could get to heaven. Maybe in twenty-five years or so I'll have that opportunity, and for less than space pioneer Dennis Tito paid for it...
I think we have to keep in mind the big picture. It is only ONE shuttle and only SEVEN crewmen. In one hundred years, long after the USA is gone and Columbia is just an interesting sidenote and an ancient two-dimensional movie, what happened will have only been a slight setback and learning experience. Technological advancement marches on.
In the short run, our leaders will have to decide if funding the space program is worth the knowledge and technology gained. NASA is underfunded, and I've heard talk of 'institutional myopia' and drastically dropping safety and maintenance standards. They say they knew it would happen--they just didn't know when or how; but maybe some knew it would be very soon.
It did not take long for pieces to show up for auction on the net--little entrepreneurs trying to profit from the deaths of the crew and the blow to NASA. But in two years when the Spielberg movie comes out, it'll be 'alright'. At least no one was killed by debris. I've been seeing reentry accidents like this in cartoons and reading about them in sci-fi novels most of my life.