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"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer

The Occasional Muse
My humble opinion on current events

February 1, 2003

A Nation Mourns 

It didn't take long for the first tragedy to strike in 2003. After a relatively quiet 2002, which was dominated by uneasy talk of war but little action outside hunting down terrorist cells in Afghanistan and elsewhere, unexpected disaster struck on an otherwise peaceful and ordinary winter morning.

I first heard the news about 7:30 on the radio in my evil SUV. Mary and I had to get up early to take her car in for electrical work, and we didn't turn the TV on as we got ready to leave. So I listened with dread as the anchors spoke of falling debris and vapor trails and dwindling hope. Although they cautioned that NASA had not yet confirmed any deaths, I knew the astronauts were gone - no one can survive a disintegration traveling 12,000 miles per hour 39 miles above the earth. 

We returned home about 8:30 and saw the images for the first time. Streaking pieces of the shuttle zoomed from the sky. Witnesses spoke of sonic booms and deafening explosions and fireballs and plumes of smoke. Brian Williams of NBC News interviewed a "space expert" who said that the astronauts probably survived the initial disaster, were alive for several seconds, and knew what was going on. Gruesome reports of discovered body parts followed. 

It's sad that it takes a tragedy like this to remind us all that there is still a space program, that space travel is still dangerous, and we're very, very lucky there haven't been more disasters. It's even sadder that in a world without heroes, in which young people search in vain for role models, we forget about the astronaut. 

Astronauts are heroes because they willingly do what the vast majority of us (myself included) lack the courage to do: strap themselves to a rocket and ride into the cold and lifeless otherworld of space. Because of their bravery, we have uncovered untold wonders of our universe. Because of them, we have walked on the moon. Because of them, we may soon walk on Mars. 

Of course, others have contributed to these discoveries. Physicists devised the systems, engineers designed, technicians built them, and administrators supervised them. But there's only so much an unmanned satellite or even the most powerful telescope can see. We need astronauts to fly the ships, collect the data, conduct the experiments, repair the equipment, and tell their stories. We need them to remind us that all things are possible, that there is another world outside of our own. We need them to be brave for the rest of us, to fuel our imaginations, to stretch the limits of technologies, to shatter the conventional theories, to expand our horizons. Imagine how dull, how pedestrian, how ordinary our world would be if no one wanted to fly into space.

Our challenge is to remember these heroes every time they fly into space and successfully return home. Give them the honor they deserve and rarely seek. Grieve with their families when they fall in the course of their duty, and give thanks that others are willing to take their place.

The fallen heroes

  • Commander Rick Husband, 45, leaves behind a wife and two children
  • Pilot William C. McCool, 41, leaves behind a wife
  • Payload Commander Michael P. Anderson, 42, leaves behind a wife and two children
  • Mission Specialist David M. Brown, 46
  • Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla, 41
  • Mission Specialist Laurel Clark, 41, leaves behind a husband and child
  • Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon, 47, leaves behind a wife and four children

As President Bush said in his speech today, "The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today.  The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home."


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