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Grieving the loss of Columbia

Editor's Notebook, Jim Scripps

It is indeed a time of grief for our nation.

Saturday’s loss of Space Shuttle Columbia comes on the heels of Sept. 11, our greatest disaster, and it will take a lot of heart to handle the double-blow. The timing of this tragedy could not have been worse. As a country, the wounds had started heeling, the bleak outlook for our future each day becoming more focused and more promising. And now this.

Through the tears we must remember what the space program means to the sense of who we are as Americans. Space exploration, especially in its infancy, defined the individual’s place in humanity. It was and is the truest symbol of America, the greatest collective result of individual endeavor to grace humanity.

Here are these heroes; fully cognizant of the risks posed by space travel, willing to take the chance to achieve something bigger than themselves. As the world’s most generous ambassador, America’s greatest gift to humanity may be space. The effort of these brave explorers has improved lives globally, and changed all of our perspectives.

On Jan. 28, 1986 I was just a kid. On that day, 73 seconds after takeoff, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, killing the crew of seven. That disaster was simultaneously viewed by thousands of school children watching in their classrooms.

I saw it, and even think I understood its specter. It was surreal, bigger than life, a smashing blow to the dreams of my generation. Everyone wanted to be an astronaut. Even as children, we knew astronauts were important people.

In retrospect, it seems as if our country and children back then may have been more in tune with the immensity of our effort to explore outer space. The Apollo missions, and the great American celebration that accompanied their successes, were still fresh in the minds of my parents’ generation, the generation that taught me.

I hope the seemingly routine takeoffs and landings of our shuttles over the last two decades has not degraded the respect we pay to the effort. Space is, after all, our destiny.

And I hope in the future my children understand why we grieved, and why space exploration is important and why we put astronauts on a pedestal.

Who knows? For them, space travel may also seem routine, but they should know what it took to get there.

In the coming days, weeks and months, we will know more about what went wrong. Already, NASA has established its effort to be forthcoming with the media, a stark contrast to the Challenger crash, where the cause and effect were known relatively early but the public was kept in the dark.

Perhaps NASA already knows the negative effect this accident could have on the future of the space program, and is putting its best foot forward in an attempt to thwart future cuts. But that may not be necessary.

We know the work NASA does is necessary and important. We know satellites are fundamental to modern life, and we know medicine will gain from the knowledge obtained in outer space. We know our presence in space is part of America’s unwritten contract with the world. Sometimes our duty is to see the worldview.

Maybe we can take a lesson from this tragedy, and improve space exploration for the benefit of future generations.

Humanity will benefit from our renewed commitment to outer space.

Jim Scripps is editor of the Sierra Sun.


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