The glimmering slanted light streaking across the celestial landscape was abstract in its beauty, a white puffy line against a patch of blue, descending into nothingness, offering no hint of the human destruction inside the spaceship Columbia.
I stood with my grandson, aged 7, staring at the television screen, listening to words confirming what we already knew. The Columbia was gone. There were no survivors.
"The astronauts are dead," my grandson said, struggling to catch the full import of the moment, grasping at meaning from the sights and sounds from the screen.
"Yes, the astronauts are dead," I said, not knowing what else to add.
"Well," the little boy said, defiance in his small voice, "I still want to be an astronaut when I grow up, and go into space." He sat down a few minutes later and began to draw a giant space ship, gliding peacefully into space, spouting water instead of fire, letting his imagination control destiny. When he showed it to me there was more defiance in his voice, as if he expected an argument: "I still want to be an astronaut."
Great oaks from little acorns grow. From such determination, public policy is set. Maybe.
Soon the newspapers and television screens were awash in debate over manned space flights. Are they worth the risks and the costs? Are the payoffs worth it? The morning after became mourning in America, the headache of grief accompanied by regret, and the inevitable questions of why, what and what if. The president was the first to stand up to try to answer them: "Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on."
The president's quiet eloquence was elegiac and elevating, a tribute first to the seven astronauts and then an attempt to dampen the exhortations of those who would use the Columbia catastrophe to put an end to manned space flights, the Nervous Nellies who would have halted Lewis and Clark at the first sign of dysentery in the wilderness.
The astronauts of the Columbia join a long list of explorers before them who set out to conquer risk, expanding new frontiers of knowledge. Their forbears traveled in rickety sailing ships, canoes, covered wagons, on horseback, mule and foot. The astronauts are joined in memory with the tough, curious, courageous, indomitable souls who would not be thwarted by the limits of geography, science and technology.
Like many of the early explorers, they died on the job. Ponce de Leon, who discovered Florida, died by arrow. Ferdinand Magellan, the first man to circumnavigate the globe, died in a fight. Hernando de Soto, who led his men to the river's edge to look across the Mississippi, died of a fever. Their explorations continued after they died, carried on by others.
Explorers, no matter what the age or the culture, are a brave lot who relish putting their lives on the line in the pursuit of knowledge. The seven astronauts who went down on the Columbia were a motley (as in multicultural) crew that testifies to the best of America. Each in his own discipline, in her own skin, black, white, Indian and Israeli, testified to the democratic spirit that emboldened the adventurous men who marked the early exploration of our country.
The Air and Space Museum in Washington this fall will celebrate the centennial of the invention of the airplane, exploring the revolution in aviation technology and its impact on cultural change. The 1903 Wright Flyer, the first airplane to sustain a flight with a pilot aboard, will be taken down from the ceiling of the museum, where it has been suspended, and put on the floor so that visitors can see it up close, along with the Apollo 11 command module also named "Columbia." Visitors will travel in their imaginations from the Wright Brothers to the Right Stuff.
Space flight had begun to feel commonplace, lacking luster, "almost routine." The Phoenix that arises from the ashes of Columbia will provide a fresh focus, debate and vision over goals that should engage us all. Do we aim now for the moon again or for Mars? How do we encourage entrepreneurial enterprise? How best to achieve a balance between space station operations and exploration, tempering innovation with safety?
The seven astronauts who died on Saturday marked their place on the continuum of "high and noble purpose." The manned flights will go on because they drive us toward new frontiers, enabling little boys and girls to dream of testing their mettle on flights to the stars.