Friday, February 1, 2013

"The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors."

The title of this post is the quote from then-president George W. Bush I used to title the post I made on February 2, 2003, after spending a day in utter shock, unable to digest what I'd seen unfolding the morning previous.  The post, made on Ye Olde LiveJournal, reeks of 17-year-old self-importance and just enough childish naivety to punch me in the gut as a re-read it.  In a very grave sense, Columbia was my generation's disaster.  Apollo 1 happened long before my parents even met and Challenger was lost when I was two and a half months old, but I watched Columbia.  I saw that now-iconic image of fragmented orbiter streaking through a blue Texas sky as it showed up on television, live, staring through tear-clouded eyes and begging for some other explanation than the one even my teenage mind knew to be true.  Tragedies didn't happen in MY space program.  They were a thing of the past.  My heroes were invulnerable.  My shuttles were flawless.  And yet... this was happening.  I saw it, I felt it, I experienced it in a way I can't relate to Apollo 1 or Challenger.  That doesn't lessen the sadness I feel when I remember those two tragedies every year, but Columbia is personal, and slices just that much deeper.

I never met any of the astronauts that died that day - though I share a somewhat uncommon name with one of them, which led me to immediately identify with her - but they were the faces of all my aspirations.  While the next ten years of my life took me in a very different direction than I ever envisioned my life going, at that point, I was hell-bent to be an astronaut.  I would accept no less.  Aside from making my role models strikingly and gruesomely mortal, it was also the first time I realized how dangerous the career path I yearned for could be.  And by accepting the gravity of this, I gained that much more respect from the seven men and women who had just given their lives without a second thought to put stars in the eyes of children like me who longed to continue their mission and push humanity to strike out among the stars.  "Hero" status isn't earned by those who act "cool," but by those who take on real risks - and are sometimes called to cash in on that gamble - without any concern to their own lives, but the contribution their work, and sometimes their sacrifice, can make to everyone else.  The seven astronauts lost on Columbia - and the seven on Challenger, and the three on Apollo 1, may have lost their lives, but achieved immortality through this.  They became larger than anything they were on earth or in space.  They are infinite, they will never fail to serve as constant motivation and a reminder of those who have gone before to inspire those who are still to come.

Every year this tragic week in NASA history passes by without a current manned program in this country is that much more tragic, in my mind.  I know, better than most, that space exploration is NOT dead; it is alive and thriving and just waiting to advance.  But I look at the lives we've already put down in deposit and it hurts my heart that it seems that advance is put on hold.  And I remember, and I ache.

February 1, 2003 was a Saturday.  I was a junior in high school, and I wanted to sleep in.  My mother said she would wake me so I wouldn't miss the sonic booms, and I could watch Columbia on TV as it glided in for a smooth, perfect landing.  I'd listen to them welcome the astronauts back to Earth, and I'd smile at the end of another mission... and then I'd probably go back to bed.  It never dawned on me that my perception of the entire space program would change that day.  I vividly remember my mother waking me up and saying, "Laurel... something is wrong with the space shuttle."  And I saw that something was very, very wrong... and in my world, at that moment, everything was wrong.  I'd lived my whole childhood with a burning passion for all things NASA, and I had full confidence that nothing would go wrong.  But it wasn't the end.  And it never will be.  As long as we look up at the sky and believe that the greatest risk isn't in failing to succeed, but in ceasing to explore, Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon will continue to inspire us, and they will never be lost in the hearts of everyone who knows we belong among the stars.

Godspeed, Columbia.