Hail and Farewell

February 7, 2003

[Freethinkers Anonymous is doing something different this week. In the past, in response to tragedies, I’ve expressed my sympathy by remaining silent. This wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice, and it certainly wasn’t easy. For anyone who believes in the power of words to transform the world it’s hard to admit being so overcome by any event that, however temporarily, words seem inadequate. By speaking in this particular case,I don’t mean to suggest that the loss of the space shuttle Columbia was any more or less significant than other events. I’ve simply recovered from my speechless state and have to speak in this case. For the friends and family members of Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, Laurel B. Clark, and Ilan Ramon, I know that grief is a journey none of us chooses but which we all have to make at some point. I hope they’ll be helped knowing that so many of us want to help them along in that journey. The following is dedicated to them, to the final crew of the space shuttle Columbia, and to all the individuals who risk so much to add to the body of knowledge shared by the world, and whose dedication and bravery are all too often overlooked.]

I saw a space shuttle before the first launch. I was in second grade at the time, seven years old, and my teacher was Mrs. Knight. She really ignited my interest in space. Any magazine article or newspaper clipping she could find about astronomy or space exploration she brought in to share with us. Other than the fact that most of us were still giddy from the premiere of "Star Wars", I don’t know what drove her interest. The Viking missions had already landed on Mars and were old news, and it would be two years before Voyager 1 got the first ever close-ups of Jupiter. Of course Mrs. Knight was a teacher, one of the best teachers, and that meant she had an expansive view of present and future, the local and the universal. One of our class projects was to build models of the nine planets and the Sun and hang them in order, from corner to corner, from the ceiling. With other worlds maintaining a constant presence in our lives, I thought of the human race not as tiny, minuscule creatures in an overwhelmingly large and indifferent universe, but as citizens of the universe. The other planets weren’t distant places with extreme temperatures and harsh conditions; they were our closest neighbors. In the spring of 1978 the whole class visited the Space Museum in Huntsville, Alabama. While there we got a glimpse of the future: a space shuttle, still under construction. My parents bought me a model space shuttle during that trip, and it stayed in my room, so I never forgot what I’d seen. For the next three years, long after the models of the solar system in Mrs. Knight’s class had gone to the dumpster, the model stayed by my bed, reminding me of what was to come.

On April 12, 1981, my fifth grade teacher Mrs. Turner brought a television set into the classroom, which might seem a little strange now that television sets and computers are practically standard equipment in every classroom. We watched the first shuttle launch. Afterward we had to write a report on what we’d seen. I don’t remember now what I wrote, but I remember noting the countdown. After four years of waiting it was hard to imagine it was about to happen. It was even harder to imagine that it had happened.

When I was fifteen, my seventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Dobbins, gave a speech at the ceremony marking the end of the school year titled "Reach For the Stars". Mrs. Dobbins was one of the candidates to be the first civilian to be trained and to fly on a space shuttle mission. She didn’t make it, and another teacher named Christa MacAuliffe was chosen instead. For most of my life I’d heard adults ask each other, "Where were you when you’d heard Kennedy had been assassinated?" For those of us who were too young to remember that event, we could understand what adults meant, and how they’d felt when they were our age, after January 28, 1986. Where were you when you heard about the Challenger disaster? Ironically I wasn’t in school on that day, and neither were most of my friends. It was a teacher-in-service day, which meant the teachers reported to work but the kids got the day off. I was at my friend John’s house. We were playing with his father’s computer, which had a thing called a modem. We were fascinated by the fact that the computer could dial certain phone numbers and then receive information, or even allow us to talk to other people. Admittedly they were just local calls, but in some ways talking to someone on the other side of town is no different from talking to someone on the other side of the world. We would have asked the same sort of questions if we’d been talking to someone in Pakistan, or Kenya. What’s it like where you are? What are you doing now? What do you do for fun? While we were trying to decide where to call next, one of John’s sisters came running into the room and said, "The space shuttle just blew up!" John and I laughed. I still don’t know why we laughed. There wasn’t anything funny, but I think we both thought his sister was trying to make some kind of sick joke. It was impossible to imagine something so terrible could actually happen. We stopped laughing as soon as we realized she was serious. That night I saw Mrs. Dobbins interviewed on the local news. I don’t remember what she said. I can’t even remember her talking. Maybe I was too stunned by the day’s events. I do remember the gist of what she said, because the reporter who interviewed her seemed just as stunned by it as I was. She wanted to try out for the space program again. If she had the chance, she said, she would go. I think she felt that to turn down an opportunity to teach not only her own students but people everywhere about something so few will have a chance to experience would have been a dishonor to the memory of a fellow teacher.

Perhaps it’s naive, but I think about space travel the same way I think about being a tourist. I’ve never travelled into space, but some basics are shared by all forms of travel: preparations have to be made, certain rules have to be followed. No matter how much I love the place I call home, no matter how much I enjoy coming back home, I always return with a greater appreciation of how grand and wonderful the rest of the world, with all of its people, is. For those who travel beyond Earth the sense of how big the surrounding universe is and how lucky we are to be citizens of it, to share the same space, must be even greater. The Columbia was the first space shuttle to be launched. Since then there have been over one hundred space shuttle missions, and in addition to the Americans who have risked so much in the pursuit of knowledge many of those missions have included individuals from India, Israel, Italy, Canada, Germany, Japan, France, Switzerland, Spain, Australia, Costa Rica, Ukraine, and Russia. That list isn’t complete, and it will keep on growing. Following every disaster there are those who call for the space program to be shut down entirely, but I think now more than ever we should realize that the space program may be the most important human endeavor of all. To stop now would be to dishonor the memory of those who risk everything to expand our understanding of ourselves and our closest neighbors.

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