By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer
What combination of courage and curiosity was it that made the seven men and women of the Columbia space shuttle willing to escape the safe embrace of gravity and reach for the stars? It is a hard thing for most Earth-bound souls to understand. Unless, that is, they have been rooted in the soil of Ohio, where human flight was born.
A hundred years ago, it took root in the hearts of two industrious men on Dayton's west side - Wilbur and Orville Wright. They were the proper sons of a Methodist bishop who dreamed a dream in the backroom of their bicycle shop that seemed absurd to the neighbors who peered in the windows, watching them tinker.
Former astronaut and Ohio senator John Glenn speaks with reporters in Washington, D.C.
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Theirs was a dream that man could take wing and fly.
Forty years later, that idea lived, too, in the heart of a young Muskingum College student named John H. Glenn Jr. He left his childhood sweetheart and the peace and safety of his hometown of New Concord for a journey that would take him to a place where he felt he could reach out and touch the stars.
And it moved a young farm boy named Neil Armstrong from Wapakoneta who looked at the high sky above the flat expanses of western Ohio farmland and dreamed of going there, too. He did, and with the whole world watching, left his footprints on the moon in 1969.
Few may know that Ohio - the "Birthplace of Aviation," as its license plates proudly proclaim - has produced more astronauts - 24 in all - than any other state.
While Glenn and Armstrong deservedly have captured the most attention, there are other notable aerospace accomplishments:
Cleveland native Carl Walz spent six months in the International Space Station. When he returned in June 2002, he had broken the U.S. space flight endurance record. He also holds the U.S. record for most cumulative time in space with 231 days.
Clevelander Jim Lovell was the first man to journey twice to the moon, but it's his quick thinking as commander of the Apollo 13 flight in 1970 that earned him worldwide recognition. Apollo 13 was to be in space for 10 days, but a failure of the craft's oxygen system forced Lovell and his crew to convert their lunar module effectively into a lifeboat. The dramatic story was retold in the 1995 movie with Tom Hanks portraying Lovell.
More attention for Ohio's astronauts came in October 1995 when an "all-Ohio" space shuttle crew flew 142 orbits around the earth. Four of the five crew members were Ohio natives. The fifth, New York native Kevin Kregel, was made an honorary state citizen by Gov. George Voinovich.
Ironically, the Buckeye crew flew on the shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated Saturday while returning to earth.
Tom Henricks, a Bryan, Ohio, native and member of that "all-Ohio" crew, said before that launch he believed there were three reasons why Ohio had produced so many astronauts.
First, Ohio children had role models such as Armstrong and Glenn. Second, they had public schools that made a point of teaching what men like those space pioneers had achieved.
And third, Henricks said, Ohioans have a "strong Midwestern work ethic.''
For Mr. Glenn, the motivation was always one of discovery.
"We humans always want to know what is around the next corner,'' said Glenn, one of the original Mercury astronauts.
The tragedy of the space shuttle Columbia was a reason for mourning, but not for regret.
"It is the oldest story in human history,'' Glenn told the Enquirer in a phone interview. In November 1998, he went back into space as a 77-year-old member of the space shuttle Discovery crew.
"The human race has always had its people willing to take the risk, even die, for the sake of discovery, for the sake of learning.''
Ohioans taking risks
All of those involved in the advancement of aviation, from the Wright brothers on, took risks. Glenn has faced the risks many times since he left Ohio to learn to fly as a Marine fighter pilot in World War II and Korea, as a test pilot, as a Mercury astronaut in a three-orbit flight, as the oldest person to flu in space in 1998.
Saturday morning, he and his wife Annie turned on their television in their suburban Washington home to watch the landing of the space shuttle. A mental alarm sounded for John after hearing that communications with the Columbia had been lost. As the minutes ticked by, the former astronaut knew something had gone terribly wrong.
"It was apparent to me early on that a tragedy had happened,'' Glenn said.
He had met Rick Husband, commander of the Columbia mission, when the former Ohio senator was in training for his 1998 flight, but they did not know each other that well, Glenn said. He had never met the other astronauts.
"I know they were all extraordinarily dedicated people,'' Glenn said. "I know they worked their tails off to get where they were. I know they all knew the risks, but they were prepared to accept that.''
As tragic as the loss of the Columbia was, Glenn said, the space shuttle program has been "amazingly safe, for as complex as it is.''
"If you had told me years ago, when this program was starting, that after 150 or so missions there would have only been two incidents like this, I would have thought it was just wishful thinking,'' Glenn said.
America, Glenn said, should remember "how much we have learned from these flights, how much science has advanced because of what these men and woman have been willing to do.''
"In every exploration man has ever undertaken, from the beginning of time, there is danger and lives have been lost,'' Glenn said. "You can go back 500, 600 years and think about those explorers bobbing across the ocean in those little wooden boats. That was pretty dangerous, too. And some of them died.''
Janet R. Daley Bednarek, a professor of aviation history at the University of Dayton, said flight has always been a trade-off of risk vs. the advancement of knowledge.
The early test pilots, she said, "did their homework and prepared for their flights, knowing full well that there was danger. These are not people who take foolish risks,'' she said. "They take calculated risks.''
For John Warlick of Springboro, who learned to fly dive-bombers off aircraft carriers in as a Navy pilot in World War II, any thoughts of fear or danger were pushed aside once he was in the cockpit.
"Once you leave the ground, you have to leave the fear behind,'' said Warlick. He now pilots a replica of the Wright B Flyer housed at a small airport near Springboro in northern Warren County. "When you are busy doing your job, you can't be scared."
For Glenn, the desire to learn always trumps the fear of disaster.
"To pioneer in something, to be the first - whether it is Lewis and Clark, Christopher Columbus, or outer space - it is what people like those astronauts strive for,'' Glenn said.
"There always will be people like that in this world.''
Special Section about John Glenn's shuttle mission
30th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's moon mission
COLUMBIA DISASTER: LOCAL REACTION
(Complete Columbia coverage at Cincinnati.com)
Flight and Ohio closely bound
Tragedy will be topic in schools today
Neil Armstrong: Don't jump to conclusions
Tristaters pray for shuttle crew
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