Drinking too much rum and watching strange movies only helps one escape reality for a short time. In the bright light of morning, the reality returns and must be confronted. In a way, it seems strange to be so affected by such events. Perhaps it was the proximity this time that affected us. It happened right over our heads. Perhaps it was the suddenness of it. Or maybe it seemed so unfair in a way: they were just a few minutes from being safely on the ground and then they were gone.
Over the past 40+ years of our space program we have lost 17 people. In some ways, given the number of launches and the risks involved, it’s surprising that we haven’t lost a lot more. Think about just how dangerous it is to be strapped to the top of millions of pounds of volatile explosive material and then to ignite it in a controlled explosion in order to be launched into the hostile environment of space. Even so, as a nation we are often deeply affected by the deaths of individuals. To some this may be perceived as a weakness, and it has been exploited against us at times. However, I think that regardless of such a perception, it makes us stronger in a way. It shows that we still value the individual and that we will take great pains to protect each person.
Each one of us is given one death. Most people don’t get a choice in how that death will be spent. These few, however, chose to put theirs down as a deposit on the dream of going into space, knowing that it could be called in at any time.
Going into orbit and performing experiments serves a useful purpose, and I have no desire to diminish the importance of the cause for which the crew of Columbia died. However, if we are going to spend such precious capital, then I think we need to be more ambitious in our endeavors. I hope that we will create a viable alternative to the shuttle using more updated technology so that access to space is less costly, less risky, and more frequent. But beyond that we must look at technology that can take us to other parts of the solar system. And we should maintain the goal of exploring even further out than that. Only by keeping such ambitious goals can we continually strive to improve our capabilities.
NASA, if it can shed its institutional calcification, can serve to help lead that effort. They have pushed the boundaries of our technology and capabilities in the past and could continue to do so. However, I look forward to the entry of commercial entities into this market. Part of my desire to see this has to do with getting our eggs into multiple baskets (i.e. manned outposts on the moon or Mars), but part of it is more selfish. The space program isn’t going to take a 32-year old geek like me with a bum knee and dodgy eyesight. But I still have a dream of someday seeing Earth from orbit or perhaps even from the moon. I think that commercial space flight may be able to provide such a thing. Who knows if it’ll ever happen. But it’s only through these kinds of dreams that we make progress.
Our astronauts are the pathfinders who are paving the way for the rest of us. Let’s honor their memory by choosing to follow that path.