(originally run February 7, 2003)
One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.
-- Andre Gide, early 20th Century French novelist
This past Saturday, February 1, we received a brutal reminder that the exploration of space is, as indeed exploration has always been, a risky endeavor. At 7:00 AM MST on that cloudless morning the Space Shuttle Columbia, for as-yet-undetermined reasons, broke apart 39 miles above Texas as it was entering Earth's atmosphere enroute to its scheduled touchdown in Florida. All seven astronauts aboard were killed.
The shock to this nation, and to the world, from this tragedy has been enormous. As many commentators have pointed out, Space Shuttle missions have become commonplace enough over the past several years as to have almost seemed routine, and Saturday's disaster came as a cold hard slap of reality to reinforce the fact that the laws of physics are very unforgiving, and that we cannot take anything for granted as we venture forth into space. In order to cope with the enormous engineering challenges presented by travel to, from, and in space the Space Shuttle is, of necessity, an extremely complex machine that contains numerous complex and interacting systems.
Columbia was the oldest of the Space Shuttle fleet, and was the first to fly. It was launched on its maiden voyage on April 12, 1981, carrying astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen on a two-day orbital mission, before returning to Earth at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Seven months later it lifted off again, becoming the first manned spacecraft in history to go into space twice. The mission which so tragically ended last week was Columbia's 28th flight, and was the 113th overall mission of the entire Space Shuttle fleet.
The coming weeks and months will certainly be filled with attempts to reconstruct Columbia's final moments, in an effort to determine the precise cause, or causes, of Saturday's disaster. They will also be filled with debate as to the proper course for our future space exploration efforts. We can hope that these activities will be constructive, and will lead to a renewed vigor and resolve to confront the many challenges we must overcome in order to expand into the final frontier.
In the meantime, we mourn the seven astronauts who perished aboard Columbia Saturday morning, and wish comfort for their families: Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon.
We should also remember those who have previously lost their lives while engaged in the exploration of space:
The astronauts who perished aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger when it exploded one minute after lift-off on January 28, 1986: Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judy Resnik, Ronald McNair, Christa McAuliffe, and Greg Jarvis;
The astronauts who perished in a launchpad fire in the Apollo 1 capsule on January 27, 1967: Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee;
The cosmonauts aboard Soyuz 11 who perished during re-entry on June 29, 1971, following a then-record three-week-long spaceflight: Georgi Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev;
and Vladimir Komarov, who perished aboard the Soyuz 1 spacecraft when it crashed upon re-entry on April 24, 1967.
In a similar vein, we should remember all the explorers throughout human history who have set forth towards unexplored lands on foot, on horseback, upon sailing vessels, and aboard airplanes, and who never returned.
The above names represent human beings young and old, male and female, from a variety of nations, cultures, ethnicities, and religious faiths. They further represent some of the finest and noblest elements of human nature, and demonstrate that the exploration of space, and indeed of all of our surrounding environment, is an endeavor worthy of the best and strongest efforts of all humanity. Let this be the final and ultimately triumphant legacy of the Columbia astronauts who had their lives taken from them, and from us, this past Saturday.
Back to list of sample columns