(February 1, 2003 // link)
Hail, Columbia! When I first heard of the Challenger disaster I was a law student at Franklin Pierce in Concord. We were in evidence class and the professor, John Garvey, made the announcement.
John was extremely emotional because, like many who lived and worked in the Concord area, he knew the McAuliffe family. I can remember that day like it was yesterday. I can even remember the seat that I was sitting in when John gave us the news and sent us home.
I will always remember where I was when I heard of the loss of Columbia as well. I was at my son’s basketball game and an announcement was made before the game that the Columbia and its crew were missing. We observed a moment of silence and then played the game.
Because my generation grew up with the space program, the announcement had an instant impact, evocative of the Apollo I and Challenger announcements, on me and my contemporaries. Few of us had to be told what “missing” meant.
As a child I followed the Space program with intense interest. I knew the names of the Apollo astronauts, and I followed their missions right to the moon. Their successes and failures felt like my own. I built my own Saturn V rocket model, complete with a detachable command module and lunar module. This was a time when we as a nation, together, were fulfilling the dreams of a murdered president. We were also proving our economic and technological superiority to the entire world, especially our cold war adversaries. These were heady days.
My interest in manned space flight never waned, despite the loss of Challenger and someone who I actually knew. I did not know the McAuliffes well, but I had met Christa on numerous occasions around town and knew her husband Steve mostly from meeting him in the grocery stores around town after his wife left for astronaut training. They were nice people who were from the place where I lived. The loss of Challenger hit home to people from Concord like me, and to people from New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The loss, however, did not shake our belief in the symbolism and the value of manned space flight, despite the danger.
Without manned space flight, humans would have never seen, first hand, how small and fragile their world actually is. Nor would we now have the opportunity to expand our horizons and frontiers beyond even what President Kennedy imagined. Unmanned vehicles and robots can do experiments, but they cannot feel and reason. The brave souls who lost their lives with Columbia knew the risks and the dangers inherent in their vocations but they chose to do what they did for the science, for the challenge, and for the chance to see just how small this home of ours is from the vast perspective of space.
It is good that NASA will take time to mourn, and to assess itself and its mission. The great people who run our space program will figure out what went wrong; they always do. The will also do what can be done to ensure that whatever went wrong never goes wrong again. After they do these things they will say we are ready to fly again.
When flights resume, and they should resume, we should all pay better attention to the dedicated and fearless people who put their lives at risk so that we can better understand our bodies and the diseases that attack them, our planet and the effect of our civilization on it, and our universe which will support the generations who come after us. So, mourn the loss of the good ship Columbia and her able crew. Honor their memory, celebrate their accomplishments and continue on. Hail Columbia.