Ad Astra
Volume 15, Number 2 March/April/May 2003


Good-Bye Columbia, and We Thank You
By Frank Sietzen, Jr.

It began as an average day. But it quickly became something very different. Images of a fallen shuttle. A President speaks solemn, eloquent words, pledging to continue the unfinished space mission. Flags on a snow-covered White House slide down to half-staff. Children rise and sing the National Anthem, the common bond that unites the American people when darkness comes unexpectedly. Around the world, America’s friends mourn for her loss. America’s enemies celebrate.

All of this happened on that day when darkness fell on the space program.

On 28 January 1986.

The lost shuttle was Challenger, the grieving President Ronald Wilson Reagan, speaking the crafted cadences of Peggy Noonan. The promises made that snowy day were kept. Space exploration continued, out there, in astronaut Rick Hauck’s words when Discovery returned America to space “where the blue sky turns to black…”

On 1 February 2003 it happened again, this time to Columbia. President George W. Bush became the latest Commander in Chief to pledge to continue space shuttle flight. And again we were all reminded, that spaceflight is dangerous and uncertain. And that, even in times as unsettled as these, there are heroes that fly that winged imperfect machine that is still the triumph of America’s will and determination.

What will happen now?

This is a very different time than 1986. And this is a very different NASA in mourning today. It was precisely the trauma of the Challenger accident that would reshape the civil space agency and lay down the improvements that made the next 70+plus shuttle missions a success. Whatever happened in the skies above central Texas, one can only hope it was a unique combination of circumstances special only to this time and that shuttle. A legion of people, from contractor to government civil service labor to make these missions as safe as can be done with this equipment. We must have the hope that they have not been betrayed, as was the case 17 years ago, by bureaucrats or oversights. For what is at stake this time, as last, is the very future of human spaceflight itself. The American people will tolerate mistakes, or equipment failures, or a pure and simple accident. But after Challenger, they will not ever again tolerate deception in space matters. And none is expected, once this accident investigation finds the cause of this event. Sean O’Keefe and his team has promised America a full and fair and open investigation. And we should not only believe his pledges, but give his agency and its contractor community the chance to work through this process. We owe these seven astronauts (including a local home town boy named Dave Brown, from my community of Arlington, Virginia who attended Yorktown High).

Should the cause of the loss of Columbia be systems gremlins or mechanical failures not dreamed of, our pause along the pathways to space will most likely be brief and limited. And so it must be, for unlike 1986, there is a space station in orbit, partially built, wholly dependent upon the shuttle fleet for its assembly.

As we have designed it and planned it to be.

The shuttle’s final legacy, in fact, is its ability to build out the station. Once we have fixed these ills, if you wish to honor the STS-107 crew, then we will need to, to put it plainly, get on with it.

With what I hope will be a minimum of naysaying, second guessing, and camera-crews following grieving families around as they rebuild their lives. After all, in 1986 there was no 24-hour cable television. It exists today, and already the wailing and handwringing has begun. I hope that in all of this noise we do not forget why we believe in all of this—the exploration of space by flesh and blood.
To improve our world, flight by flight.

To answer the call of the unknown with knowledge and information, one piece, one experiment at a time. Because a great nation must use space technology to build a better society. As we do. As it does.

All of this space exploration comes with a price. In dollars, on an annual basis it’s about what the military spends every week. In blood and treasure, it sometimes extracts from us our best, smartest, most dedicated souls. Whose work improves us and gives us honor.

We are informed by their example, and diminished by their loss.

So let us remember who they were, find out why they died, and keep moving forward. As we did on 28 January 1986.
And, with determination, we must begin to plan the transition from full shuttle dependence to some combination of, at first shuttles and the Orbital Space Plane, and then, a new, next-generation reusable launch system. For an RLV is the ultimate solution to the problem of reliable, dependable, and affordable U.S. access to space.

When the old century was young, an American President once looked across the national landscape and saw wonder and opportunity. But he cautioned his young country that while it was emerging into the world, our place on that stage—requiring honor, sacrifice, and bounty –would sometimes demand unexpected costs.

But, Theodore Roosevelt wrote, those costs, the price of exploration and daring, were worth the price. He wrote:
“It is the man in the arena of public life that we honor, whose face is marred by dust and sweat, and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again because there is no effort without error and short-coming; but who does actually strive to do the deed, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumphs of high achievements, and at the worse if he fails at least fails while daring greatly.”
Theodore Roosevelt never saw a spaceship, but was the first American President to fly in an airplane. He was right in his observations then about striving and sacrifice. On that Saturday last February we sacrificed anew when darkness came again.

After a time, let us resume the striving.

And, therefore, Hail Columbia and her crew.

And thank-you.

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