Farewell, Columbia

So this morning I was settling down and getting ready to write. My daughter was in watching Croc Files, NBC’s Saturday morning rehash of Steve Irwin cable programs. The show ended, and she wandered in to see what I was doing, then went somewhere else in the house.

After a few minutes, I realized she hadn’t turned the TV off, and as I walked into the TV room, I heard something about NASA losing contact with the space shuttle.

“Oh,” I thought. “They’re doing a documentary about the Challenger explosion.”

I went to turn the TV off, saw the vapor trail, and was reaching for the off button when I saw the crawler.

NASA LOSES CONTACT WITH SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA.

I sat down on the coffee table and started to watch.

It became evident that outside of the initial videos and the pall over mission control in Houston, the media was grasping at straws. At one point, Buzz Aldrin was on NBC, then Fox, then had NBC asking for him again; he ended up in the NBC studios. All the networks could do was what they usually do at a time like this; show the same footage over and over again and like us, ask why. It’s typical of situations like this; the coverage is immediate, but the ratio of actual information to repetition – the video clips over and over and over, for example – is quite low.

All of this is moot, I guess, to what actually happened. The loss of another space shuttle. Launches or landings are now so commonplace that I was actually stunned that the Columbia disintegrated on approach to Florida. I assumed at first that it was a launch explosion.

My ignorance of the status of the shuttle mission aside, it still hurts when something like this happens. Like our soldiers, like our police and firemen, astronauts are our heroes. Perhaps this hurts so much because there are so few astronauts compared to the others; it makes the space program more personal. Look at the furor over the original seven Mercury astronauts at the height of the space race (as chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.)

Now there are many more astronauts in the program, but they still only go up seven at a time. And seven is a magic number, one that is supposedly optimal in human memory. Seven seas, seven dwarves, seven wonders of the world. The reason why U.S. phone numbers are seven digits long (those of us who now live in areas where the area code is required on all calls notwithstanding).

With millions of policemen, firemen and soldiers, it is hard to put a face on the ideals of courage in the face of danger. It is only when we lose them in sufficient numbers – during wars, or during disasters such as 9/11 – that it makes us pause to consider the dangers they face on a daily basis.

So our astronauts, because of their scarcity and high profile, become that face for us. It’s the world’s most dangerous profession (shuttle missions now have about a 2% failure rate). But it’s also the profession that inspires us the most as a nation, exemplifying the can-do American spirit of triumph in the face of overwhelming odds. Astronauts are our last link to the fading rose that first bloomed at the end of the Second World War, that science had all the answers, the key to humanity’s best shot at making this world over into a true utopia.

Now it’s the 21st century and science hadn’t answered all of our questions. Breakthroughs are met with cynicism and raise more questions than they answer. Here we are, in the time when magazines like Popular Science predicted things like flying cars, disposable suits and meals-in-a-pill – and nothing much has changed. Science looks more like a bogeyman than a savior.

It’s a testament to the seven of the Columbia – and to those on the Challenger; to those past astronauts, living and dead; and to those who will certainly continue following the dream into space – that they still inspire us and keep our excitement high over the prospect of scientific discovery. And in spite of our blase attitude about their chosen line of work, we can still be moved to tears when we lose them.

With good reason.

Those are my thoughts on the subject of today, rambling and misshapen as they are. They could have been shorter, better, more concise. But maybe they wouldn’t have had the passion that this raw version does.

NP – Nothing. It didn’t seem right.

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