"The Columbia broke up on re-entry."
When Jeremy said these words to me the other night, I had absolutely nothing to say in response because, for a moment, I couldn’t grasp what he was talking about. The Columbia broke up? Well, they make provisions for these kinds of things, don’t they? There’s some sort of escape pod, some sort of emergency ejection procedure, right? And now the seven astronauts are bobbing around in a little capsule on the ocean, waiting to be picked up, just like in all those old pictures of the Mercury and Apollo space missions…aren’t they?
My first words in return were, "Are…are the astronauts okay?" But even as I said this, I knew the answer. Of course the astronauts weren’t okay. When you’re plunging to Earth at 12,500 miles per hour, there isn’t any sort of ejection procedure that’s going to be able to save you if something goes wrong.
And so, as the world did 17 years ago, we look again at pictures of a terrible streak of smoke in the clear blue sky and wonder what went so horribly wrong.
Some of us will now also wonder whether the cost of space exploration - as regards money, time and lives - is just too high. I’m not certainly not among the skeptics here. I’m one of the many people (the families of the astronauts included) who are praying that this disaster doesn’t spell the end of the space program and the death of the hopes of people all over the world who have dreamed of the wonders of space - myself included.
The closest I can get to outer space is by looking through the telescope my parents bought me when I was kid. I’m not an astronomer or an aerospace engineer and I probably never will be, but every time the shuttle has blasted into space, my heart has gone with it.
My heart raced with excitement when the Columbia first blasted off in 1981. It looked like a giant airplane to me, and I was sure that, in just a few years, we would all be flying to and from the moon just as easily as my family flew to and from Florida to spend summer vacations.
My heart was heavy when, as a child, I stood watching the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, waiting to see the shuttle blast off - only to be told that the mission had been postponed at the last minute and that I wouldn’t get to see a liftoff in person after all.
My heart soared the two times I actually saw the shuttle in the sky: once in St. Augustine, Florida, where I saw the shuttle (from a distance) blast into space in a cloud of billowing white steam and brilliantly blazing rockets, and once in Arizona, as it streaked in a silver arc across the night sky, on its way to land safely at Kennedy Space Center.
My heart broke in 1986 as the TV program I was watching was interrupted to show live footage of all that remained of the Challenger and the seven people on board, one of whom was not an astronaut at all but just a normal person like me, a teacher, someone who seemed to bring the average citizen’s dream - my dream - of space flight just a little bit closer.
And, of course, my heart broke again as I watched the Columbia come down in a shower of fiery stars over Texas.
One of the most moving things I’ve read so far was a statement from Gadi Ramon, the brother of the Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon. He said, "Just two days ago I got the last e-mail from him, and he was so happy. He said that he was so happy he didn’t want to come back to Earth. And he didn’t come back to Earth."
Cold though the comfort may be right now, we have to remember that these astronauts died doing something that they loved. They died having seen the Earth from space. They knew the risks they were taking, and they willingly and nobly accepted those risks in the name of exploration, discovery and knowledge. It’s such a valiant thing to do, and I sincerely hope that other astronauts will be given the opportunity to show the same courage and to realize their dreams and the dreams of those of us who are earthbound, but who gaze at the stars in wonder every night.
This was a tragic ending for one shuttle mission, but it can’t be the tragic ending for manned space exploration altogether. The only fitting memorial to all of the astronauts who have died doing their job is to carry on their work, to build upon what they’ve learned, and to continue to break the bonds of Earth and head for the stars. I don’t think the crews of Columbia , Challenger or Apollo 1 would have wanted it any other way.