Monday, February 3, 2003

Saturday morning, I woke up and turned on the television. And as has happened all too often in the past, I saw an awful event unfold before my eyes. CNN was reporting that the space shuttle Columbia was overdue for its landing at the Kennedy Space Center. Just then, they reported that they had gotten video of the shuttle flying over Dallas, TX on its final approach.

As I watched, I saw a bright dot move across the screen. The dot soon became two, and then four. I realized that the shuttle was breaking apart in midair. Still, I held out hope that somehow the astronauts would survive, through a combination of miracles and suitable protection. I realize that it was a vain hope, but still I crossed my fingers.

Within an hour the news exploded. More footage came in, this time of debris falling over eastern Texas. A ceramic tile in a yard; what looked to be a shredded tire in a driveway. I saw footage of a scorched field, obviously set aflame by falling debris. And I saw radar footage of the debris path as it made an angry red swath between Tyler TX and Shreveport LA, like a scar across the nation.

Like many people, my mind flashed back to the last time this happened. It was January 27, 1986. I was 19 and I had just been fired from a factory job I had been working at for only a week. I had been sleeping off the effects of the job (it was at night), and I had just woken up, groggy and grumpy.

Suddenly my aunt Sue appeared at the front door. She had come to town to do some shopping. Aunt Sue asked me, “Have you been watching the TV?”

“No,” I replied, “Why?”

“The space shuttle exploded”, she told me. Aunt Sue kidded around with me quite a bit, so I didn’t believe her at first. The look in her eyes, however, told me that maybe I should turn on the TV and check it out.

There it was, splayed all over ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN. The Challenger rising from the launch pad, in what had quickly become a routine event, only to transform into a ball of flame just over a minute later.

There were the Corrigans, Christa McAuliffe’s parents, watching the sky with pride, then confusion, then panic, as their daughter rose to and became one with the heavens. There was the shot of her students in Concord NH, cheering the launch only to turn to grief within a span of two minutes.

I grieved as well. I had been following NASA as long as I could remember. One of my first memories was watching the launch of Apollo 16 in 1972. I saw men walking on the moon. I saw Americans and Russians shaking hands in space, when that was considered to be a monumental event. I sweated out the years between Apollo and the Space Shuttle, contenting myself with coverage of the Voyager missions and dreams of someday experiencing weightlessness myself.

It all came crashing with a sickening thud on January 27, 1986, and it happened again Saturday. The ironic thing is that the night before the Columbia fell apart, I was doing online research on the Soyuz 1 and Soyuz 11 tragedies. I tried to imagine what it would have been like to have died on the way home from a space mission. That had never happened before on an American space mission. Unfortunately, we can no longer make that claim.

So what happens now? I honestly don’t know. In ‘86, the Challenger tragedy kept the US out of space for almost 3 years. Of course, back then we didn’t have a space station in progress to worry about. We still have Americans aboard the International Space Station. The Russians can give them a ride home, I suppose, but then what? There are several modules to be taken to the ISS. Hopefully something can be done to complete it.

May the spirit of exploration continue...

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