Ten years ago today, the astronauts aboard the space shuttle Columbia died when their vehicle broke up over Texas on re-entry, about 14 minutes before a scheduled landing in Florida.
Not to get all technical on you, but a piece of the booster rocket that lifted the shuttle into space broke off and damaged its wing. In the vacuum of space, that didn’t matter. But in the searing temperatures of atmospheric re-entry, the heat plus the damage destroyed the wing and with it the shuttle and the lives aboard.
The best tribute I read to those astronauts was written the next day, by a guy who sent it in an email to blogger Nancy Nall. I saw it on Nancy’s blog and posted it myself; when I went looking for it recently, it was gone, alone with some other of Nancy’s older entries. (A few of my older entries are missing, too, victims of a screwed up export from Blogspot to WordPress that even Archive.org couldn’t make right.) But I still had it on my blog.
The shuttle program is over, and as I write this, it is far from clear what shape U.S. manned space flight will take, if there even is any more in my lifetime. I hope that there is. Space captures the imagination of almost all of us, from Ptolemy to “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, but we don’t all of us get to go, and the guy who wrote this to Nancy on Sunday, Feb. 2, 2003, knew why:
I hope that tomorrow morning all over America schoolteachers are pointing out to their students how many Ph.D’s and master’s degrees were on board Columbia. Willie McCool had three of them. He graduated second in his class at Annapolis [the U.S. Naval Academy]. Whenever we lose one of these things we lose some amazing people. That’s because every time we launch one we send up into space amazing people.
Laurel Clark was the least accomplished of the crew: she was a mere MD.
I love it that Ramon took that drawing up with him. I love it that David Brown (another mere MD) was once in a circus. Just as I loved it that Judith Resnick was a classical musician.
Spock was a musician. Kirk was a history buff. Sulu read Dumas. Roddenberry knew who’d be going because that’s who’s always gone. Cook and Darwin and the captain of the Beagle and Merriwether Lewis.
“Come find me.”
More and more I think that’s God’s First Commandment.
And only the best and brightest obey it.