The Columbia first flew in April 18, 1981. That maiden flight of the space shuttle inspired me to write what became my first publication, a guest column in the Springfield News-Sun, complete with my picture and everything. I saw the shuttle as the beginning of a new age, ushering an era where men and women lived and worked in space. Though budget cuts diminished the shuttle, and left it less than ideal, it was our first space truck. Trucks aren't glamorous vehicles, even in this era of cowboy chic. Trucks are work vehicles, devices that do the mundane work of getting stuff from point A to point B, so even more important work can be done at B.
Space needs a truck. Lots of trucks, because we have work to do in space. Humanity born of this Earth, and as we have matured it has passed into our stewardship. How we handle our power and responsibility has yet to be written, but the Earth is our nest. Ducklings were not meant to live their entire life in the nest, or even the neighboring pond. We too must fly from our nest and reach out into the stars.
Columbia, the first of those unglamorous trucks, died today, taking her crew of seven with her. Few paid attention to her launch. 2003 isn't the late fifties when Mercury-Redstone rockets always seemed to blow up on the pad. Or the sixties when mankind took brute force and discrete transistors to place a man on the moon. Space was an adventure then, as men sought to go where no man had gone before. Today, most of us our bored with shuttles that are sometimes delayed, but always seem to work. There is no glamour in building a space station, or an experiment on growing chips in zero gravity. Just simple nuts and bolts work and science for a world full of people who can't explain a covalent bond, yet would die without the fruits of science.
Today we all were reminded that exploring is dangerous. Space is a forbidding place. No atmosphere, none of the gravity that keeps coffee in our cup. Cold unheard of at the poles and temperatures hotter than the meanest autoclave. Just getting into orbit is dangerous: The Challenger explosion proved that in 1986, today Columbia proved that re-entering a gravity well is pretty dangerous too, particularly at high mach numbers.
But then exploring has never been easy. The seas are littered with the wrecks of ships. Magellan's team may have circumnavigated the world, but Magellan himself died doing it. The men Christopher Columbus left in the New World disappeared without a trace. It's a risky business being first, or even nearly first.
Of course, we could stay home and avoid risk. Die of cancer and alzheimer's. Or watch humanity obliterated when an asteroid finally blunders into terra firma, or the sun exhausts its fuel and swallows us in the process of ballooning into a supergiant.
If we must die, should we not die trying? If we do not reach for the stars, we will never reach them. If we aspire to mediocrity, then that's all we'll achieve. Today we remember the great explorers, and not the sensible folk who stayed home. Columbia and her crew died trying. I should hope to die half so well as they.