FIRST PERSON | Born in 1961, I and countless other children of the Space Age followed America's every move against the Soviets in the war for the high frontier.
We were promised "Mars By 1980," and believed it. But the budget wars of the 1970s and the public's gradual disinterest in manned spaceflight had NASA instead entering the 1980s with a recyclable launch vehicle with a destination no more ambitious than low Earth orbit.
By Saturday, Feb. 1, 2003, NASA's successes of the 1960s that had culminated in the Apollo 11 moon landing were relegated to distant memory, or even worse, dismissed as a hoax by those too young to remember or incapable of comprehending the scope of America's accomplishments.
That Saturday, I was at work running a printing press, with the radio in the background just as it had been in 1986 when I heard the news of the Challenger disaster. Shock followed. Regular programming was interrupted yet again to read a list of names of those presumed lost: Anderson, Brown, Chalwa, Clark, Husband, McCool, and Ramon.
Radio contact had been broken as STS-107 passed over Texas in its planned descent from orbit. As coverage continued, the nation learned that the spacecraft had disintegrated as it entered the atmosphere, scattering wreckage and the remains of the crew over sections of Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.
After examination of the debris and study of the electronic data, an investigation board determined that a chunk of insulation foam dislodged during launch had breached the integrity of Columbia's thermal protection system. Superheated gases generated during reentry penetrated the ship, rapidly incinerating the shuttle and its occupants.
The United States space program underwent another lengthy hiatus while an investigation was conducted. The shuttle program never quite rebounded from the tragedy, becoming as obsolete in its own way as did the offset printing press I was operating on that cold February day.
However, the future of manned spaceflight did not die with Columbia and her crew. It waits for a new generation to take up the challenge to go, to explore, to discover, and to dream of new worlds and a new future for mankind.
- Science, Social Science, & Humanities