I was deeply saddened by shuttle loss, and as usual I failed to find the words to get it all out. Fortunately I have a cornucopia of eloquent friends who really know how to put pen to paper (so to speak).
The following is a post to the webboard of the Guild I belong to, I thought I'd share what Rodney posted. Sorry if it's long, maybe I can trick Jer into putting in a cut tag option...
"Okay, so I have to question myself as to why I feel the need to post something about this. Part of it, I guess, is arrogance. Arrogance that anyone else would care what my opinion is. I think the bulk of it, though, is a need to work through my thoughts and this is a friendly enough forum for it.
The Columbia is gone, seven heroes lost. That word has been in the American consciousness a lot recently. It's used to describe the firemen and policemen who lost their lives Sept 11, it's used to describe the Palestinians who fight overwhelming odds, it's used to describe the Israeli soldiers who must fight against a foe who use terror to force their issues, it's used to describe Pennsylvania miners and their rescuers, it's used to describe our troops who will likely soon face war in a far-off desert, it's used to describe those here at home and abroad who demand peace. The last few years have been years of great villainy and tragedy, but, like in the storybooks, great villainy and tragedy is met with great heroism. It gives this cynical old bastard a bit of a charge to find out that the storybooks aren't always wrong.
So why are these seven so heroic? Well, a hero is one who faces danger for the betterment of their fellow man. These people didn't risk their lives trying to shoot someone else, or save someone from a burning building that some lunatic decided to blow up, or bring a city to its knees in the fervor of trying to prevent war. Those people are all heroes, to a point, but these astronauts...these scientists, explorers...these explorers seem to stand above all that. They're not just heroes...they're superheroes. They're not fighting a faceless enemy...they are not trying to pick up the pieces of human villany...they are not trying to prevent the ravages of an insane war from being inflicted on the innocent...they are fighting reality itself. They are stretching the bounds of humanity, expanding who we are as a people...in essence, they are exploring the murky twilight that exists at the edge of what we know to exist. They carry the hopes and dreams of the future...they carrry a part of us that is holy, a part that too few of us indulge in. No human being has ever been to space and shrugged it off. It is met with the wonder of a child, first discovering that caterpillars are fuzzy or ants tickle or toes wriggle. There is a certain innocence there that can't be seen in the grim resolve of the earth-bound heroes I listed. Despite being parents, scientists and soldiers, they are the children of the collective humanity. When they are hurt and killed, we feel it all the more keenly.
I also don't feel that this is primarily an American tragedy. The space program has for years been wrapped in the questionable politics of the Cold War, but even when there was no end in sight for that ridiculous conflict, the U.S. succeeded in sending human beings to our moon...the first to walk on another world. They put up an American flag, but when they departed, there was a plaque left behind which read:
"Here Men From Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon July 1969 AD. We Came In Peace For All Mankind."
"...Peace For All Mankind."
That's what the space program is about. In the end, it's not about petty nationalism or the accomplishments of a single nation. It's about the accomplishments of "All Mankind". It's about peace. There were seven people on board. Kalpana Chawla was a woman born in India. Ilan Ramon was Israeli. Michael Anderson was an African American. Laurel Clark was a woman. Rick Husband, William McCool, David Brown...I will likely forget these names before tomorrow. But I will remember the diversity. I will remember their sacrifice. That they died for me. They died for my descendants. They died for All Mankind.
That's why this is different. That's why this eclipses many of the tragedies that happen throughout the world. It does not make those tragedies any less significant. But like the death of a loved one is more personally significant to us than the death of a stranger, the death of these super-heroes, our children, hits many of us harder than the other tragedies through which humanity must suffer.
My heart goes out to those families left behind. My heart goes out to the engineers and scientists at NASA who have lost their friends and colleagues. I hope that the knowledge that they too are earth's heroes will assuage any guilt that they may feel from this.
Will this end the space program? I must admit I was concerned about that and, to a point, still am. Whenever something like this happens, some will question the need to explore space. It is true that we do have more troubles down here than we can handle. But we cannot allow ourselves the cold comfort of cowardice. Exploration is a necessity of human existence. When we fail to expand and improve ourselves, societies implode and degenerate. When Rome defined its borders and said that they would expand no more, they became decadent and eventually their society crumbled. When the United States ceased to expand, it started turning in on itself. Erikson, Columbus, de Gama, Cortez, Raleigh, Hillary, Cousteau...regardless of their crimes as people, they paved the way for human development...for a psychological and society evolution that we, as human beings, need most. And many gave their lives to expand human consciousness. The Roanoke Colony disappeared altogether. Many died that first winter in Jamestown. Many have died conquering Antartica and Everest. Often, our drive to expand and explore has come with a corrupt disregard for the region explored. Entire peoples wiped out to the point of extinction. But space is different. In space, we need not hurt or harm. Against the oppressive uncaring void of space, we band together as humans committed to the fulfillment of that primal dream.
That is why the space program will not end. It will persevere because it is driven by something more powerful than politics or economics or even fear. It took us 2 1/2 years to recover from Challenger and start to send people again into space. I hope it does not take that long this time, but however long it takes, I know that it _will_ happen. We _will_ go to the moon again, we _will_ build new lives there. We _will_ kick up radioactive dust on the surface of Mars, we _will_ swim the cthonian deep of Europa. One day, we will look up and see the rise of an alien sun. It is a matter of time only.
To be honest, it is with a certain amount of trepidation that I learn how far along the Chinese space program is. It is also with a certain amount of pride in the ingenuity of humanity. At the very least, if the Chinese do send people into space, perhaps it will spark a new Space Race. The last one lead us to the Moon. Who knows how far this one will lead us. Maybe through our work in space we will finally come to know that most elusive undiscovered country...peace."