The Shuttle Disaster

Having been a science guy and geek, this whole space shuttle Columbia disaster has been on my mind a bit. There’s so much to think about and to say. So many facets of the human experience uncovered. Of course there are the teen-age vigils that bring tears to GWB’s eyes, and the bizarre press coverage of people finding helmets and wheels. Also, the whole hero thing and the family’s stories. And NASA playing CYAssa.

When I was but a youngster, the space shuttle was such a cool idea. I mean, I’d been drawing fighter jets for years and years, and I totally dug the observatory. Man walking on the moon was something that I’d totally missed out on, and there while space travel was romanticized in some of my early favorites like Star Wars and The Black Hole, there just wasn’t much happening with it, as far a I could tell. Then the space shuttle came along, and not only was it something new and something cool, but it was visible, and the idea of an airplane going into space was so futuristic yet tangible. So, I watched the launch, and followed the boring ass progress of it in space every now and then on the news, and then missed the landing, but I was sad about it.

Then there was the Challenger, which was a true tragedy, for science, people, families, education, and NASA. Maybe there was some benefit from martyrdom, but in general that was one of those day whose sadness just sticks with you. My teacher came to class with tears in her eyes, none of us knew yet, nor was the gravity of the situation so clear, but there was something deeply tragic in the air.

Similarly, when I first saw the news of the Columbia on my CNN email, my heart sank. I was astonish, and feelings of that day welled up again. But they stopped. While I felt for the crew of the Columbia, I just didn’t see them in the same light, the same heroism as in the Challenger. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing tragedies, trying to say, oh that ones more Hamlet, that’s more ancient Greek, but really, the romanticism is gone. The shuttle isn”t new and exciting, it’s over twenty years old. There’s no Gene Roddenberry with the prime directive. MadTV does more Neil Armstrong voice-overs than the news. We’re looking at seven people who willingly took a massively high-risk ride that a lot of others (me! me!) would happily take and even do sit-ups for.

The people at the vigil, I don’t know what they’re accomplishing. Sure, it’s sad, but maybe you heard about this flight because of the Israeli on-board, but probably not. Of, course, I’m pretty blase about their situation now anyway, but that’s the topic of another article. But, hearing about sad things on the news doesn’t mean you should go out and hug strangers…except that you might get invited to the White House or State of the Union Address to represent some guy who was told that this is a good PR move.

I try to avoid watching the news. Especially on TV, it’s really so bad it almost makes me want to cry. Not that I’d go watch it live. But I saw one lady, a teacher from such and such, maybe Texas, ironically (don’t quote me there though!), who had her students away on a long field trip to some place or other, and she was being interviewed. I could not believe that she said that she and her fellow teachers had gotten together and decided not to discuss this with their students! That is some lazy, paranoid, mislead teaching! If there was any possible opportunity to get a teachable moment out of this, something that might stick with the kids, it’s to help make sense of the tragedy. Get them together. Show them that this is something that is important to you. Be affected. Let it ruin their day if they want. But crap, don’t hide from it. You don’t need to hold a vigil, but talk about space travel, and the excitement and risks accociated with it. And the possibilities.

The space program is one of those things that we like to think makes America great. Well, we’re falling behind. Plans for the Space Shuttle as a commuter spacecraft are about thirty years old. And N’sync still has to talk to Russia to get a thrill. The space shuttle is old hat. We need to move forward. More Mars talk. More moonbases. It’s about discovery, knowledge, curiosity, power. So many great qualities of Western though.

I found this article which was written many moons ago by a man who felt that the space shuttle project was misguided from the get-go. A risky endeavour, overly costly, extraordinarily risky, and an insignificant step forward. I can’t say that I agree with the thesis of this fascinating article, but many of the points and facts are extremely interesting. The article was written about a year before the first Columbia launch. I do believe that the space shuttle was a great step forward. It is evidence to NASA doing its best, battling, as well as being a part of, horrible bureaucracy, overcoming immense barriers to achieve something quite extraordinary.

But perhaps I was caught up in the romaticism of the shuttle at an early age, and even in light of reason cannot shake free. I don’t think so. Even today, the shuttle astronauts are risking their lives in the space equivalent of VW Bug…sans flower-holder for the advancement of the space program, science, maybe a little military and corporate behemoth wealth, but mostly, I think, for the sake of adventure, wonderment, and romance. Those astronauts were heroes. May their last ride serve mankind.

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