Furthering space effort honors shuttle victims
I was really surprised to see the cover of the Feb. 3 edition of Newsweek when it arrived in the mail last week.
“Not Again,” blurted the header accompanying a photo of the shuttle Columbia broken apart into fragments high above Earth. A smaller photo of the Columbia crew gathered together for a group shot was in the lower right-hand corner of the cover. They were all smiling broadly.
“Not again?,” I thought to myself.
There is no question the Columbia’s disintegration 20,000 feet in the air signifies a heartbreaking loss of human life. It’s also a huge loss in terms of the scientific experiments that were on board, and for the space program in general.
But to me, the phrase “not again” should be used as we contemplate yet another war – using deadly force to deal with international conflicts. We’ve seen what war does to soldiers, countries and innocent people. We’ve seen it over and over again.
But the Columbia tragedy is the second fatal accident in the shuttle program’s history. Two out of 115 of these missions have resulted in catastrophe and death. The other 113 missions were conducted successfully. That’s 113 liftoffs, 113 journeys into space and 113 re-entries. To me, that’s phenomenal in terms of the amazing technology that goes into each and every nut and bolt of a shuttle mission.
Last week, following the Columbia accident, I interviewed two retired aerospace engineers who now live here. Tom Collins lives in Silt and Larry Soderberg lives in Battlement Mesa.
Tom, who spent more than 30 years at Kennedy Space Center, told me about the astronauts he has known – from before Apollo 13 to after the Challenger.
“I knew all the astronauts well,” said Tom. “And across the board, they’re absolutely the best of the best. I never got unimpressed with any of them.”
He said astronauts have changed through the years.
“Those first astronauts were wilder than the astronauts nowadays,” he said. “In the early days, a lot of them were test pilots. They drove around in Corvettes. They were fun guys. They really were like the guys depicted in the movie, `The Right Stuff.'”
Tom said today’s astronauts are “more reserved. They’re serious in another way. They’re Ph.D.s and M.D.s.”
But one thing Tom said astronauts were and are acutely aware of is the danger involved in space exploration.
“You would not believe the attention we’d pay to the tiniest of details,” Tom told me of the engineers he worked with on each launch. “There wasn’t anything left to chance.”
But like any type of exploration, there are failures that can’t be foreseen. Tom said the astronauts all knew this – and they still wanted to fly. Every single one of them.
Our family knows a local high school senior who is applying to the Air Force Academy. She has always wanted to be an astronaut and she knows the Air Force Academy is a great steppingstone to get there.
I talked with her mom last week and asked how her daughter was feeling about the Columbia accident. Her mom told me her daughter, who also happens to be a barrel racer, is undaunted.
“She said to me, `Mom, it’s just like barrel racing,'” her mom said. “`If every time I got on a horse I thought about the fact that I could get mangled, I’d never do it. It’s the same thing.'”
Larry Soderberg, the retired aerospace engineer now living in Battlement Mesa, shared a similar sentiment.
“Two catastrophic failures out of 115 is not a total loss,” he said. “In my opinion, you’re safer in a space shuttle than in Denver traffic.”
Exactly. And while my heart goes out to the families and friends of those truly awesome people who lost their lives on Columbia, I must agree that without risk there is no progress. To truly honor these astronauts’ lives is to press on with space exploration.
In Tom Collins’ words, “You live, learn and go on. It’s the nature of being human.”
Carrie Click is a Post Independent staff writer. Her column runs on Tuesdays.
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