(I wrote this on Saturday as a journal entry, but ended up not liking it, I fails to express the things I wanted to express. But rather than trash it, I think I will just put it up here as is…)
I remember watching Columbia lift off on it’s maiden flight. April 12, 1981. I was three and I sat on the floor in front of the big RCA Console TV where I usually watched The Muppet Show. I don’t remember if I watched it live or on the news that night. It’s one of my earliest memories, and it’s older than many of my friends are. I rolled my head to follow the shuttle on the screen as it rolled upside down and arched out over the ocean, headed into space.
Like any child in the eighties I was fascinated with space, I watched every shuttle launch from then on. When I had to go to school I, I recorded them and watched them when I came home. I had the patches for each flight on my jacket. I guess every kid wants to be two things when they grow up, an astronaut and a paleontologist. Dinosaurs and space, the two things that are so beyond our everyday world that every child day dreams about them.
When I was nine the Challenger exploded. I was in gym class when the principles voice crackled over the pa. The Challenger was gone. That night I watched the news again, sitting on the floor in front of the same Console TV. Over and over I watched it for 73 seconds. I watched it turn into a cloud of gray smoke against the blue Florida sky. The two solid rocket boosters speeding away, giving the cloud horns. Latter Ronald Reagan’s face filled the screen as he comforted the nation. I was too young to understand most of it, death was still to abstract, but I can still remember sitting there as he summed up the feelings of the nation;
“The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.'”
Today when I awoke I read the headlines and for a few seconds I could not comprehend what they were telling me. I spent all day watching the news. And I watched George Bush speak to the nation, and though I do not share his faith, I was still moved by his words;
“The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth, yet we can pray that all are safely home.”
But my mind wonders why? Why do we keep going up there? In the 17 years since the Challenger last lifted off, we have again lost our national focus on space. Most of people in America could not tell you if a shuttle was in orbit. I don’t keep up with it the way I used to. I still read about the experiments that the crew will perform, the space walks and I still read about the launches, but I have come to see manned space flight as a child’s dream. Many still cling to this dream, and that has kept the program goings, but while space holds many secrets and will never loose the mystery we feel when we look to the heavens, there are other, more important challenges facing us, as humans and citizens of the Earth.
When I look to the sky I feel wonder and awe, but when I look to the Earth I feel shame and disappointment. Why do we feel the deaths of seven who lived good lives and died living out their dreams more than we feel the deaths of the thousands who die each day from poverty and war around the world? Though I would not detract from the value of those who have died in the pursuit of their dreams, and it the pursuit of science, I think the money used to send them into space could be better spent. The dreamer and child in me wants NASA to continue to send people into space, to go further, build more and reach out to other planets. The realist, the human in me sees the money that America spends on the space program and feels that it could be put to better use. Rather than send more doctors into space to experiment, we could send doctors into poor nations to treat the sick. Rather than buy liquid fuel for another shuttle launch we could buy drugs for people dying of malaria, cholera, AIDS and many other diseases.