February 1st, 2003


Ad Astra Per Aspera

I don't admit to doing this very much, and it doens't happen very often. But this afternoon, I cried.

I didn't cry when The Pope or Sadat were shot in 1981. I didn't cry on 9/11 (although I was too numb to do anything). I didn't even cry when our Supreme Kangaroo Court appointed Bush in January 2001, a terrible day for our nation. Sure, they were terrible disasters and flash-bulb memory events where you remember for the rest of your life where you were when they happened, but I didn't cry.

Saturday morning, as I had picked up breakfast from Mickey D's and was headed over to a computer store to buy a new computer case, the news came over the radio. I was sleepy and disoriented and a little hung over, so when I first heard it I thought they were referring to the Challenger explosion 17 years ago. I pulled into the parking lot and sat, dumbfounded and shocked.

Suddenly it was 1986 again, finding out after Ms. Fraley's Trigonometry class that the Space Shuttle had exploded. Our nation's best horse in the space race went down in a ball of fire, and we were all in shock, in disbelief. Seven brave astronauts, one of them a civilian, even more so, a teacher, went down as the Challenger exploded from faulty O-rings over the Atlantic ocean. We were devestated. I went home to hug my puppies, I just couldn't believe that such a thing could happen to something as proud and great as our space program.
It took nearly three years before we as a nation were back in space again.

A little over 17 years later, I stared at the TV in disbelief as I watch the shuttle turn into a fireball somewhere over the American Southwest and explode at Mach 20-something. I saw the names and the pictures of the brave astronauts that willingly went up and went down in nothing less than a blaze of glory, and I cried. I haven't been that all over the place since my dogs died, and it was harder because I couldn't be comforted by my puppies any more, as they died five and seven yeras ago.

I remember the day Columbia was launched, in April 1981. This may sound like an old man rambling, but it was the first day of hope for America that we were back in space and that we meant business. Since then the shuttle program has done so many flights that we don't pay attention to it at all, but I remember back when it was an incredibly big deal when the tiles fell off in 1981, with all the delays, false starts and other problems that happened. I never appreciated, our nation never appreciated, how freaking important those tiles were.

I was too young to remember the Apollo program with the Saturn V rockets back in the late 60's and 70's, but the Shuttle was space travel for me. As a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up, like most kids my age. But then again, I also wanted to be a fireman, a doctor, and a superhero that saved the world. You can only do so many things. ;)

Going into space, physically, is freaking scary. It involves forces we as humans were never evolutionarily meant to deal with, and why no other species on earth has managed to fling aside the jealous shackles of gravity, not even the mightiest of birds. Returning to this world through our gases and atmospheres requires a journey through an Inferno that Dante couldn't have imagined, and of speeds and forces that never occur in nature. It requires our best and most expensive resources and materials, and our best and brightest men and women to even attempt to do.

And still, we must go on. I know, this has been talked to death about how we can't give up
the dream of space, but we can't cower under our beds because of this. We must make our space program better, and go to the next level. The design for the shuttle was put together over 25 years ago. That's like all of us driving around in K-Cars and Dodge Darts. We can do better. Columbia was 22 years old. Most of us don't have (and wouldn't drive) cars that old!

Let's make a fleet of shuttles that don't have the tiles fall off, or at least tell you when they do. Let's build a ship where you don't have to fear for your life during re-entry where we can do it slowly and skillfully enough that you don't have to fear for being incinerated alive. Let's build a spacecraft where you don't have to attach it to highly explosive liquid-hydrogen bombs of doom to even get it to escape the surly bonds of earth. It's the 21st Century, let's see what we can do. Space is a goddamned scary place, and we're the only species brave enough and crazy enough to tromp in where angels fear to tread. The seven astronauts we lost in Columbia,
and the other seven we lost 17 years ago in Challenger, would want nothing less.

Ad Astra Per Aspera - To the Stars with Difficulties
(and the State motto of Kansas)
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