Eight years ago, I was awakened one Saturday morning to a phone call from a good friend.
“Did you hear what happened? Are you watching the news?”
Groggy from having just woken up, I had little idea what I was about to see, as I trudged into my living room to turn on the television. I was least prepared. The late breaking news headline on CNN hit me, quite literally, like a ton of bricks: Space Shuttle Columbia had broken up over the skies of the southern United States as she came hurtling back to Earth with her crew of seven.
A lifelong “space nerd,” I’d dreamed of the day I would be able to say that I worked for NASA, and even more so of the day I could break free of gravity’s bonds. After a couple of NASA internships over the previous two years, I had acquired a taste for what it was like to be a part of the NASA community – a tight knit group of people who collectively recognized and appreciated the value of space exploration, many of whom, like me, grew up staring at the heavens at night, eyeing the moon as an eventual travel destination.
That morning, I sat in absolute disbelief as I watched the news unfold, while file footage provided graphic evidence of the disaster that took place over the skies of Texas. My thoughts immediately turned to not just the immediate family and friends of those who perished onboard Columbia, but to all of those who belonged to the NASA family…to my NASA family. Tears flowed as I saw images of the flight control team reacting to what they knew was the absolute worst possible scenario, a bad day amplified by a magnitude of infinity. Without even personally knowing those onboard, I felt a deep sorrow for their loss, for those close to them, and for NASA.
The Apollo 1 fire was well before my time, and almost my parents’. And though it took place during my lifetime, I was hardly a toddler with little cognitive ability to remember the Challenger disaster in 1986. And now with Columbia’s demise, we were once again faced with the stark realities of the dangers of human spaceflight and forced to weigh the benefits versus those very risks. Uncertainty loomed, and in the midst, I couldn’t help but wonder what this would mean for the future of our national human spaceflight program.
As pledges of sympathy and support poured in from all over in the subsequent days, President Bush delivered an address vowing that human spaceflight in the US would continue, just as it had after both the Apollo 1 and Challenger accidents. And almost one year later, he announced his Vision for Space Exploration, setting forth legislation that would send us back to the Moon and onto Mars. This promise ignited hope and inspiration in those of us who spent their youths dreaming of “slipping the surly bonds of Earth” and setting foot on extraterrestrial soil, while honoring the legacy of those who’ve made space exploration possible.
Since the inception of the US human spaceflight program, countless individuals have devoted their livelihoods to further the cause for exploration, to test the limits of mankind’s knowledge and experience, and to expand the boundaries of our terrestrial existence. We have been, are, and forever will remain an agency of people who believe in space exploration. We are a collective group of passionate, dedicated workers who are inspired by the contributions of spaceflight to humanity. We are men and women who were awed by Sputnik, by Neil Armstrong’s first steps, by the first joint Russian-American venture in space, by the Space Shuttle’s maiden voyage, by the building of the International Space Station, piece by piece, before our eyes and who are still inspired on a daily basis by the feats we help accomplish. We are an agency motivated by man’s innate desire to achieve the impossible, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
We believe in our hearts with the greatest conviction that the greatest accomplishments in human spaceflight are still ahead of us; and yet we recognize that we must honor the legacy left by our space-faring forefathers and our colleagues who’ve given their lives in the name of exploration. Our every decision, our every action is motivated by the events of our past and our hope for the future. Let us not forget the magnitude of their contributions or the extent of their devotion.
Eight years after the announcement of the Vision for Space Exploration, we sit at a pivotal juncture, one that will determine the course of the future of our nation’s human spaceflight program. As we wait for our new Congress to set a fiscal year budget, my thoughts turn to all those who’ve dedicated and given their lives in the pursuit of humanity’s innate desire to explore.
As we step into a difficult transition period, one wrought with anticipation, nail-biting, nerves, disappointment, and frustration, let us not dwell on the opinions and assessments of others, but rather move forward with hope and inspiration drawn from the legends of spaceflight past.
As we decide on the feasibility of plans for the nation’s space program, let us remember that our forefathers, in the face of adversity, accomplished seemingly impossible tasks.
And, this week, as we commemorate the lives of our colleagues whom we have lost, let us remember that their ultimate sacrifice must not be in vain, that we must accept our constraints, our limitations, and from that, build plans of sustaining a robust human spaceflight program, capable of inspiring generations to come.