Columbia

It’s taken me two days to collect my thoughts enough to write about this. The loss of the orbiter and its crew hit me as a complete shock on Saturday, and I immediately started checking CNN and press releases. On the web. Not on TV. I remembered watching the Challenger footage over and over, and I remembered watching the World Trade Center footage over and over, but I couldn’t bring myself to look this time.

Barely a week ago I had been looking at mission photographs on NASA’s website. I knew the faces of the crewmembers. I had been looking for a photograph they had taken of a rare atmospheric phenomenon which was described in a newspaper article, but which hadn’t been included with the article. I never found it, and figured it would be posted later. Now I wonder if it was actually transmitted.

In the summer of 1992 my family went to Florida. We spent several days at Disney World and several days at Cape Canaveral. Two things that struck me the most were how much the old Mission Control looked like classic Star Trek, and the Astronaut Memorial. On Saturday I pulled out my photo album from that trip, and wondered where the next 7 names would be added.

Once the shock started to wear off, I started wondering about the future of space flight. And that’s when the fear and anger set in. Fear that we might abandon space flight entirely. Anger at a public that no longer cared, at a government that steadily cut support for space exploration.

The shuttle is our only ticket into space right now. The fleet was intended to last a decade or so, but all of the proposed replacements have been shut down as too costly. Can you imagine what would happen if all commercial airplanes were the same model, and an accident could ground the entire fleet for up to two years?

We’re like sailors who only know how to make one kind of boat, and after a few trips to a far-off island have decided not to stray far from shore. We haven’t been to the moon in 30 years. Think about it: 30 years. I’m nearly 27 and no one has set foot on the moon since before I was born.

The one bright spot in all this is that there is talk of renewing our commitment to space. And with that news I’m encouraged to hope that the problem that caused the disaster may be found and resolved in months, not years, that the space station crew may be able to remain on board with new supplies, or at least come home in a more comfortable ship than a Soyuz capsule. This hope may turn out to be in vain, perhaps even on both counts, but I prefer it to the fear.

The Columbia crew has one over on the Challenger crew: they made it into space. Heck, they have two: they completed their mission. I don’t know how much of their data was transmitted back and how much was going to be collected in person. But if I had to choose between dying just before getting into space or just after spending two weeks up there, I know I’d choose the latter.

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