I have been in love with manned spaceflight since I discovered the Tom Swift,
Jr. books at the age of six.
When I was eight years old, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to leave the
Earth, journey through space and return alive to tell the tale. And I danced
for joy at the news, although it was the height of the Cold War and Gagarin
was a Soviet citizen, because we -- the human race -- had finally, finally
set out on the greatest adventure of this or any age.
In 1969, I had the great good fortune to be living in Satellite Beach, on the
East coast of Florida, just 40 miles or so from from what was then Cape
Kennedy, when Apollo 11 lifted off for Earth's Moon. Standing in the front
yard of our rental home, I watched the Saturn V take off -- my Mom shot a
shaky, handheld Super8 movie of the launch -- then spent the next four days
glued to the television coverage of the mission. I particularly recall a
conversation between Walter Cronkhite, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A.
Heinlein that took place in the wee, small hours of the night on July 20, as
the world waited for the Lunar Excursion Module crew to awaken from its
Capcom-mandated sleep and step out of the spacecraft and into history.
For all four of us, it was clearly a tremendous peak moment -- an event for
which we'd been waiting all our lives.
Last night a friend of mine whom I've never met forwarded a message to a
mailing list on which we're both subscribers, pointing out that the space
shuttle Columbia's re-entry would be visible all over the West Coast.
I put in a sleepless night -- an all too common occurrence for me nowadays --
so, since I was up anyway, I stepped out into our East pasture to watch it
It was spectacular. The orbiter winked into sight in the Northwest, trailing
a tail of fire, and swiftly began tracing a line across the Northern sky. It
flared three or four times during its brief passage and then, all too soon
for me, it disappeared over the Eastern horizon, leaving behind a glowing
I was so happy.
I came inside and sent a brief description of my sighting to the mailing list
where the forwarded message about the shuttle had been posted and then, in a
mood of what I can only call exaltation, I went, at last, to bed.
This afternoon, at 2:00, just as she was reaching the end of her lunch break,
my wife, Judy, called me to tell me that the shuttle had been destroyed over
Palestine, Texas, just minutes after I last had seen it.
I cried, of course. And I thought about the flaring I had seen -- how
beautiful it had seemed to me -- and I felt a terrible sense of guilt at my
pleasure, for I had the sudden, sickening conviction that those lovely bursts
of flame were the product of the orbiter's left wing disintegrating.
But, no, as it turns out, it's more likely that I was seeing the effects of
what NASA spokesmen are calling the roll-reversal maneuvers -- the series of
sharp banks that the shuttle pilots put the orbiter through in order to shed
velocity high in the atmosphere. So I didn't unintentionally find joy in the
death throes of the space plane. And for that, at least, I'm grateful.
It's small consolation, though, for yet another American national tragedy, so
very early in the new century -- and for yet another blow to the credibility
of manned spaceflight.
It shouldn't have happened. The design of the STS shuttle fleet is a quarter-
century old. It's obsolete and desperately overdue for replacement with a
newer model -- one that takes advantage of the lessons we've learned at such
terrible cost about reusable spacecraft design. And it is equally clear that
the Space Station has got to be equipped with a lifeboat system, so that
another disaster, such as a fault found with the Russian Soyuz rockets, cannot maroon its crew in unforgiving vacuum.
But those are issues that must wait just a little longer before we address
them. For now, there is only grief and loss and aching sadness.
For America and the world, it is a terrible time, once again.