At around 11:00 A.M. on Saturday morning, NASA officials lowered the flag at Kennedy Space Center in Florida to half staff. Two hours earlier, communications with the space shuttle Columbia, returning home after a 16-day scientific mission, had been lost. Residents of Texas and Louisiana who had gotten out their video cameras that morning to film the shuttle as it soared majestically across the sky, instead captured the stomach-turning sight of multiple smoke trails as the ship came apart. With the lowering of the flag, the slim window of hope that the seven-member crew had survived was officially closed.
It is churlish to mention it, but it is safe to say that many Americans (myself included) were only dimly aware of Columbia’s mission before Saturday morning. This was the 113th shuttle mission since the shuttle program began in 1981; Columbia itself was the craft flown on that first mission. It had been 17 years since the Challenger accident. As veteran astronaut Jerry Linenger commented on Saturday, after so much success in space, shuttle launches had begun to seem routine. In recent years the introduction of a new videogame machine often received more media attention than the awesome endeavor of sending men and women into space.
NASA has been thinking about ways to recapture the imagination of the American public. John Glenn’s return to space, for example, was in part an attempt — a somewhat successful one — to spark renewed interest in the space program. In a similar vein, the agency reportedly has considered an all-woman shuttle mission. Columbia boasted the first ever Israeli in space, Ilan Ramon, a fighter pilot who was the son and grandson of Holocaust survivors. Ramon brought into space with him a drawing made by a Jewish teenager imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp that depicted the boy’s idea of what the earth would look like from the moon. It is beautiful to contemplate: a boy’s vision of a freedom beyond the walls of human cruelty, made real half a century later.
Stretching the bounds of human freedom was the goal to which the seven members of Columbia’s crew dedicated themselves. They were aware of the dangers, even if some of us safely on the ground allowed ourselves to forget. Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chalwa, Laurel Clark, Rick Husband, William McCool, and Ilan Ramon are heirs to the great explorers of human history. May God bless them, and grant them new wings.
— Cristopher Rapp, a former NR editor, is a student at the University of Virginia School of Law.