This weekend the Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed during its atmospheric re-entry after a successful 16-day mission.
As many of you know, I started off my professional career with NASA, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California; I went to work there the fall after the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.
The Essence of Humanity
In my 10 years at JPL, I met a fair number of astronauts and generally found them to be extraordinary people. They know what they do is inherently risky, and they choose to do their jobs anyway. While a few have big egos, to a man (and woman) they’re not swaggering “forget the danger! Let’s go!” types, but were rather very thoughtful explorers — the essence of humanity.
I didn’t know any of the astronauts that died Saturday in the Columbia disaster, but I sure know their types: they’re the kinds of people I like as representatives of America, and the world. They’re similar in a 21st century way as the astronauts I wrote about in a 1999 entry regarding a special occasion.
After the crash, a friend sent me this quote, which I found interesting considering how old it was: “When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the Earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” –Leonardo da Vinci
There’s Another Quote I Like, from Star Trek: The Next Generation (in the episode “Q Who?”) when the character “Q” first introduces humans to the Borg. Picard whines about losing 18 crewmembers in the ensuing battle, and in response Q lectures:
If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it’s not for the timid.
I agree completely: exploration isn’t safe — not for the Europeans who ventured out and discovered America, not for those who mapped it later. And not for those going out to space.
But you know what? It was worth it in the past, and it’s worth it now.
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