I often wonder how people younger than I am feel about the space program. I imagine that space would hold fascination for most people. But I am of a certain age. My dinosaur years—the period in childhood when interest in science and nature blossoms—coincided with Apollo. I saw the first lunar landing, albeit through the drowsy eyes of a barely-awake five-year-old; while I don't remember that event, I vividly recall the missions that followed, as well as the bitter disappointment when the Apollo program was terminated. Skylab was tame stuff by comparison.
Today's loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia naturally brings to mind that awful morning seventeen years ago when I stood, too horrified to sit, before the tiny black-and-white television in my college dorm room, watching as the images of Challenger exploding were played again and again. And, once again, timing: if the apex of the space program had occurred just as I was reaching the age to notice, so too the Challenger disaster coincided with my transition to adulthood. It was a loss of innocence at an age where such losses are all too common.
When I was a senior in high school, my friend Don and I passed spring break by driving to Florida, where we visited his grandparents in Cocoa Beach. Our arrival coincided with one of Columbia's early launches, and so we found a spot with a clear view across the bay to the Kennedy Space Center and watched. We were far enough away that the shuttle itself appeared tiny, a speck nearly lost amid the flames and smoke of launch, and I recall craning my neck to watch the ascent past the clouds, awed by the thought of where it was going and by the notion that it would return to make the trip again.
That day is now nearly 21 years in the past, and Columbia had made many such journeys before today's fatal reentry. Despite the rigorous scrutiny the shuttle received after every mission, it's natural to wonder if its age, and the enormous stresses to which it was subjected over the decades, played a role in its ultimate catastrophic failure. We'll find out, I suppose. But for one not affiliated with the space program, and not acquainted with the astronauts lost today and their families, this is more a day of reflection than a time to search for answers.
It is, I recognize, selfish and egotistical to personalize this event. The loss of Columbia is not about me. But while this event will not, I suspect, have the singular impact that the Challenger disaster did (except, of course, on the families of the lost astronauts, and on those involved in the space program), it comes at a more unsettled time, with war against Iraq apparently imminent and with North Korea engaging in nuclear provocation. Already the days have felt weighted with anxiety, and it's not surprising, perhaps, that I find myself looking inward as much as outward. I dreamed the other night that I was on an upper floor of the World Trade Center, struggling for breath amid the smoke and heat on that awful September morning; just as the building swayed and began to topple, I awakened, my heart racing, relieved that it had just been an awful dream, now ended. Eventually, I drifted back to sleep, only to find myself at the World Trade Center once again, this time fleeing down the steps to escape the fire above; just as I reached the lobby, in sight of seeming safety, the tower began its collapse. With such thoughts already weighing on my mind, today's tragedy adds to the load.
(Link via Glenn Reynolds).