Still trying to come to terms with the loss of the Columbia earlier today. I was the sort of kid who borrowed the worn old copy of the shuttle’s pilot’s manual from the library, and always had it checked out even after memorizing the whole thing. And manned spaceflight has always seemed to me to be a far more important thing than, well, almost anything else. For reasons I won’t go into here and now.
And I’m thinking about the crew, and their families. If there’s a consolation for them, it’s that the people who went aboard that ship knew the risks they were taking very well, and understood that the importance of what they were doing outweighed the hazard to their personal safety. They gave their lives to open doors for humanity. For what solace it offers, they made the decision to do this, and for what they did we owe them a debt of gratitude.
Right now there are three people aboard the space station, who are due for a return to Earth in early March. NASA has to make a difficult decision now; whether to evacuate them using a Soyuz capsule or continue with the shuttle mission as planned. The former would mean leaving the station empty, with no clear sense of when a crew will return; the latter entails a risk. It would mean sending up a resupply capsule earlier, to keep the crew going until another shuttle could be checked out and the cause of the crash hopefully narrowed down, and it would mean sending up the next shuttle before we are completely certain of all the details of this morning’s accident. It’s the sort of risk NASA hasn’t taken in a few decades. But it’s the sort of risk that there are crews willing to take.
I suppose it’s pretty obvious from this which of the two alternatives I favor. I don’t want us to become afraid of doing manned spaceflight because of this morning’s accident, and I don’t know any other way to keep us from getting shy of it than to go up again, soon, to prove to ourselves that it’s not always going to be that way. Like falling off a horse. Yes, spaceflight is dangerous. But it’s been worth it to a lot of people who have put their lives on the line for it, and it’s worth it to all of us who have benefited from it, and to all those who will benefit from it in times to come, in terms of the new technologies it’s brought us, the new possibilities it’s opened up for humanity, and the new perception it’s given us all about our place in the universe and just what we can achieve in it, to continue to invest our energies in doing this.
Alright, this has turned from an elegy into a rant, and that’s not what I wanted to do. Let it just suffice to say that I mourn for those who have fallen today, and would like us to carry on their work where they left off, remembering them in our actions and not just in words.