Fifteen years ago today, I was driving south on US 29 in southern Virginia when I spied a bright light moving across the sky. There were no blinking lights associated with, just a smooth steady motion, very bright, across the sky from West to East.
I knew what it likely was. No, not a UFO. I figured it was either the space station or the shuttle Columbia. I also knew how to verify it, once I could get to a computer. I had long been a space station watcher, and I knew a website where one could check for possible viewing opportunities. It included other satellites, but nothing shows up quite like the space station or the shuttle.
I checked the website and found out it was indeed Columbia, well into its second week of a long mission. It gave me a good feeling to know I had seen it pass because I had a special personal association with the shuttle Columbia. In 1981 I had driven to Florida to watch the first launch. It was the culmination of a lifetime fascination with space flight, dating all the way back to Alan Shepard’s first Mercury flight.
Anyway, I didn’t think too much more about it that week. Until Saturday. Our son called and said turn on the TV, there was something about the space shuttle. I was with our daughter Audrey and as the news channel came on a deep pit opened in the bottom of my soul. “Ooooooo,” I said.
Audrey must have noticed visible shock on my face and asked me what was wrong.
I pointed at the screen. “See all those trails in the sky?”
“That is supposed to be ONE.”
She realized what I was implying and asked, “Can anything be done?”
“No. It’s over,” I said, “They’re gone.”
It was a horrible tragedy, but space flight had always been dangerous and always will be. Is it worth it? As I sit here typing on a device that can trace its widespread use, along with the networking and other technology that make this communication possible, I’d have to say … yes.
In a way, I always thought the Columbia disaster was even more tragic than the Challenger explosion because these astronauts had a very successful mission up to that point, most of it doing hard science. And a high percentage of their data had already been transmitted home. They had completed their jobs and were fifteen minutes from landing. So close, in fact, that people were at the Florida landing area anxiously waiting for their imminent return. It just never happened.
On a personal level, with the people and families involved, it’s a tough call, but every single person who flies into space has to accept the risk; they know it is extremely dangerous. Life is full of such risks. If we were suddenly whisked away from the nineteenth century and plopped onto the freeway into a car driving seventy miles an hour along with hundreds of other cars … we’d probably drop dead in fear. And at any moment, even those of us who are used to it should realize that it is extremely dangerous and in a split second, we could suffer the same sort of fate as those astronauts.
I think Alan Shepard explained the astronaut side of it best when he said, “It’s a very sobering feeling to be up in space and realize that one’s safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”
Anyway, as we approach the fifteen-year anniversary of the tragedy I’ll be thinking about the Columbia crew and their families. Tragedies like this make us all stronger and help to make space flight even safer. The shuttle was the most complicated machine ever built. That we lost three out of five was regrettable, but even more regrettable is the fact that we lost continuity … we should have continued building them, making them better and safer, maybe a new one every four years. At the very least we should have had a replacement vehicle ready long before we retired the fleet.
Now, we are on the cusp of a new era of exploration. There will no doubt be other tragedies. Advancement sometimes has a high price.
If you ever want to spot the station flying overhead, you can sign up to get text alerts of when one is coming up. Sign up here: https://spotthestation.nasa.gov/sightings/
I highly recommend it. You can look up and think, “I belong to a civilization that can do stuff like that!” When you think about it, in many ways it is as remarkable as building the pyramids.
Thomas Fenske is a writer living in North Carolina. You can find out more about him and his works at http://thefensk.com
Note: his debut novel, THE FEVER, is available for a 25% discount for a limited time. http://thefensk.com/fever.html