As a friend of mine on Facebook put it, sixteen years ago today Columbia came home.
I had forgotten what day it was today. When he reminded me I felt the tears spring to my eyes. I remember.
I remember frantically running into the bedroom asking the Rocket Scientist, “Did you know people aboard Columbia?” “No,” he said. “Why?” (A friend of his had flown a recent mission and I couldn’t remember which one.) I could barely get the words out, “It broke apart.”
The day after the tragedy, I asked the Rocket Scientist, “Would you go up?” “Tomorrow,” he replied with no hesitation. I asked my Facebook (then Livejournal) friend the same question. He responded immediately and emphatically, “Absolutely.” Although they can’t now, there are men and women in NASA who feel the same way.
We have lost brave men and women. We have brave men and women whom, those other losses not withstanding, would take their place in reaching out into the dark. In an instant.
I’m not sure they will be given the chance. We have lost our way to the stars.
I have never thought of the deaths of Rick D. Husband, William McCool, Iian Ramon (the first Israeli astronaut), Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Blair Salton Clark (not to mention the Challenger crew or Gus Grissom, Ed white, and Roger Chaffee, the three astronauts killed in the Apollo 1 fire) to have been in vain. Not until recently, that is.
I once said 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.” I now think I was wrong.
As a nation, we have lost our desire to push beyond the boundaries of earth. Yes, we have people in the International Space Station, but we went to the moon fifty years ago, and it took us only ten years to get there. Why do we not have people on Mars? We even abandoned the shuttle program.
Yes, there have been private entities that talk a good game about manned missions to Mars or the Moon. (Hello, Space-X!) But our government seems unwilling to commit the resources necessary to actually get there. They make vague statements about Mars and the Moon, but nothing seems to happen beyond unmanned probes. (None of this is intended as a criticism of the scientists and engineers behind the probes and rovers: I know how hard you work, and for how long, in order to get those instruments out there.)
Among other things, we as a country have become risk averse. We are frightened about another Columbia, another Challenger. Space is an inhospitable place for humans, and that scares us.
As a country, we also just don’t want to spend the money. We spend money on a lot of other things though: if Trump gets his wall, that money equals a quarter of NASA’s budget. (Trump will probably not get his wall; I think perhaps though that he will get other things that cost nearly as much.)
Fear or stinginess, it really doesn’t matter. All of it together means that seventeen people will have died for what in the end was no reason.
We owe them better than that.