Seven brave pioneers sacrificed their lives this weekend for the advancement of science and of humankind. Seven men and women, fully aware of the risks of their mission, and carefully selected for their courage and expertise, were forever lost, but will be forever remembered.
The Columbia Seven are more than heroes. They became heroes when they became astronauts. On Saturday, February 1, 2003, they became legends; examples of the triumphs of human will. Their martyred names shall be inscribed in the texts of history, accompanied by some of the most respected words of our language: bravery, guts, sacrifice, devotion.
Commander Rick Husband. Pilot William McCool. Payload Commander Michael Anderson. Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla. Mission Specialist David Brown. Mission Specialist Laurel Clark. Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon.
The tragic culmination of shuttle mission STS-107 shocked the nation and the world. They were so close; why must fate intervene at such a bitterly sardonic moment? Students gathered by televisions, hoping it was all a hoax, praying for the souls they feared were lost. Mothers called their children, grateful to hear once again their young voices. All were thankful of their own lives, and shared concern, bewilderment, fear, and horror. Their first glimpse was a diagonal line of white across a field of blue, tipped by two glowing embers. In Texas, it rained metal.
This has been a historically devastating week for the American space program. A fire in the cockpit of the Apollo 1 spacecraft, on January 27, 1967, killed three. The explosion of the Challenger shuttle on January 28, 1986, claimed seven more. This weekend, we lost the Columbia Seven as well. The future looks dark for the underfunded National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Challenger disaster halted shuttle launches for over two years. And today, the partially constructed International Space Station may become abandoned as well.
Congressmen and Bureaucrats appeared on television, accusing this and that of blame, still sorting it out in their own minds. A president addressed his nation, giving the most comforting words he could give: “My fellow Americans, this day has brought terrible news and great sadness to our country.” Widows, widowers, and children spoke of the undaunted loyalty, passion, and spirit of their lost loved ones.
Some will argue that the risk is too great. That the need is not justified. That science is slowly killing us all. Most likely, they will point the finger in many directions, casting culpability and fault anywhere it can be directed.
Past mistakes and neglect are not nearly as important as future commitment and advancement. The Columbia Seven gave their lives for a cause they were dedicated to, and would be insulted, appalled, and disillusioned if the cause that they died for were to be abandoned. The deaths of the Columbia Seven should not magnify the dangers of spaceflight and the horrors of reality. They should instead inspire international unity and allegiance to the progression of science, technology, and knowledge.
Just as the American space program survived the wounding catastrophes of Apollo 1 and Challenger, so it shall survive the loss of Columbia, its oldest shuttle, and the Columbia Seven, a most heroic crew.
“Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand,” said Bush. “Our journey into space will go on.” The quest for knowledge, the stretch toward the unknown, the grasp for understanding of the cosmos shall continue.
“They made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives and service to the country and for all mankind,” said Commander Rick Husband on the 17th anniversary of the Challenger explosion, while he was in the Earth’s orbit.
The same shall hence be said of the Columbia Seven.