Today, January 31, 2008, is the fiftieth anniversary of America’s entry into space. On January 31, 1958, the aptly named Explorer I took to the skies from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, headed to earth orbit where, besides being a “Anything you can do we can do better!” response to the Soviets, it amassed evidence of the Van Allen radiation belts.
It is an anniversary that falls amid other, more sobering, dates. January 27 marked 41 years since Apollo 1 caught fire on the pad at Kennedy Space Center, killing Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. January 28 was 22 years since Challenger exploded a minute after liftoff, killing Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ellison S. Onizuka, Ronald E. McNair Gregory B. Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe. As of tomorrow, February 1, it will have been five years (already?) since that horrible morning in 2003 when Columbia, the first and best of them, disintegrated on reentry over East Texas, killing Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon.
I suppose one could pontificate pompously on the price of exploration, and how great discoveries often require great sacrifice. It would be true, and crass, and trite.
I make no pretense to being a disinterested observer. My mortgage is paid for by programs which hopefully will someday send humans to Mars. I have lived with a man for twenty-five years who has space exploration as part of his psyche; a NASA lifer who just got his 20-year pin. A man for whom the question has never been “Should we go into space?”but “How do we get there?” And space fever is contagious.
I do not have an answer to the question “Is it worth it?” To state that a loss of any life makes the costs too high , in what is essentially still a complicated enterprise fraught with endless opportunities for disaster, is as wrong as saying that the death of brave men and women — who knew that they were involved in a possibly catastrophic endeavor — do not matter. I do think that exploration is part of who we are, for good or ill: we can no more as a people renounce our desires to boldly go where no man has gone before than we can renounce our passions for sunlight and moonlight. To explore is to learn, to know — curiosity is a basic human drive.
So we do what we have always done: mourn the sad anniversaries and rejoice in the successes. They become entwined, one around the other, the past and the present and the future.
And through it all, we still reach for the stars.