Sunday, February 2, 2003

Flight: A routine miracle

Here is what I remember about our last space shuttle disaster, the Challenger.

Christa McAuliffe, the teacher, was on board. I remember the horror captured on the faces of the spectators as they watched the shuttle explode on takeoff. I remember its oddly pristine and beautiful path through a cloudless, blue sky.

Oh, and one other thing - I remember being surprised. The space miracle was commonplace. We put people in these ships, took pictures of them floating around, doing their scientific duty and lost count of how long they'd been there or who they are.

Until January 28, 1986.

Before that, three lives had been lost on the ground, kind of an industrial accident. President Lyndon Johnson addressed the nation after the Apollo 1 tragedy. Nineteen years later, Vice President George H.W. Bush was first to notify President Ronald Reagan when we lost the seven astronauts on the Challenger mission.

Serious science

And now another generation will be reminded that it's not a cakewalk, not a billion-dollar Disney adventure ride for millionaires or boy-band members. The seven professional crew members of the Columbia completed more than 80 experiments during 16 days in orbit.

"Do we really have to come back?" astronaut David M. Brown said wistfully when Mission Control gave the radio command to begin descent. Shortly after that, we lost them.

I didn't even remember they were due back. Or how long they'd been gone. Columbia's next flight was scheduled for November when Barbara Morgan, backup crew member for Christa McAuliffe, was to be on board.

In 1986, President Reagan said, "We've grown used to the idea of space, and we forget that we've only just begun. We're still pioneers. ... It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted. It belongs to the brave."

It was a brilliant speech, delivered with the grace of the Great Communicator at the top of his game. He went on to observe that, naturally, our national tragedy was there for all to see. "We do it all up front and in public. That's the way freedom is."

An earlier space explorer, John Gillespie Magee Jr., described a mission at 30,000 feet in a poem he sent to his parents during World War II: "Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds and done a hundred things you have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence."

The 19-year-old pilot was testing a new Spitfire V. He died in it three months later.

President Reagan's speechwriter Peggy Noonan borrowed from Magee's poem, one he'd jotted on the back of an envelope. The speech delivered an indelible image to displace the anguished faces and wreckage of the Challenger disaster.

"We will never forget them," President Reagan said, "nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and `slipped the surly bonds of earth' to `touch the face of God.' "

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