Space travel requires nation's courage

Published 8:25 am Wednesday, February 5, 2003

By By ROBERT BLANKENSHIP – Managing Editor
Turning on the television Saturday morning to discover the loss of the space shuttle Columbia isn't how any of us wanted to begin our weekend. The loss of seven brave men and women and the space shuttle itself is truly devastating, not only to our nation, but most of the world.
I imagine everyone wanted to know what went wrong and that certainly was prevalent in my mind. But, in watching the television coverage, three things kept coming to my mind - the astronauts' families, the courage required for space travel and the loss of Challenger in 1986.
I can't begin to imagine what it must be like for the families of the men and women who travel into space. While most of us are comfortable with flying, breaking through the earth's atmosphere and into space is another thing all together. I would imagine that the husbands and wives, moms and dads, and the children of astronauts undergo a lot of anxiety during these trips.
On Saturday morning, I figure that these family members were filled with the excitement of getting to see their loved one and the relief that the 16-day mission was coming to an end. To get within hours, possibly even minutes, away from embracing them and speaking with them, only to have them taken away at that moment seems extremely cruel.
What these families can take solace in is that they died performing a task of global, perhaps universal, importance. This was a job they trained hard for. It is extremely likely that it was a job they dreamed of performing.
It takes a special kind of courage to be willing to put yourself at the risk involved in space travel. While shuttle voyages have become "routine" to the average American, for NASA and those involved in the process, there is never a routine trip. The science is so precise, the training is so vigorous, one mistake and everything could, literally, fall to pieces.
Recently, some of those that are extremely rich have offered to pay the Russian government for a seat on their upcoming space flights. I lot of us would buy that ticket if we had the means. But, few would want to undergo the training and be accountable for the billion-dollar craft or the lives of those on it.
I remember as a boy I use to dream about becoming an astronaut. I used to read books about the planets and the solar system. Most people my age will also remember watching as the space shuttle lifted off and landed during those early years.
Many of our young people, don't realize the event that a space shuttle mission used to be. In the early to mid-eighties, people turned on their televisions to watch each liftoff. Watching the fire spit out of the bottom and the amazing smoke that mushroomed was an amazing sight. Many people would stop what they were doing and follow the shuttle until it was completely out of sight.
The shuttle truly was an icon of the early-80s. It was a symbol of America's place at the head of the line in the space race. It was yet one more reason that many people of that time felt good about the direction our country was heading.
Of course, that all changed in January of 1986 when we watched Challenger explode during its takeoff. I was sitting in my seventh grade government class when we were escorted to the library to watch the news that morning. In the following days, we all got to know the first teacher scheduled to go into space - Christa McAuliffe - and we found out what happens when an O-ring gets too cold.
After that catastrophe, NASA purposely began making shuttle missions more low key and the routine got to be too common for news coverage. Where kids my age had detailed posters of the shuttle hanging on their bedroom wall, today's children probably have no idea when the shuttle is in space. Despite this, all generations have come to appreciate the sacrifices of our nation's space program.
Even though modern shuttle missions are typically only covered in the media with a short line on the breaking news "ticker" at the bottom of the screen, Saturday's event proves that the shuttle still holds a special place in our nation's heart and mind. We still appreciate the courage of those that train to lead our nation's space program. We still hold a high regard for the families that sacrifice so much so that our nation can lead the way to new worlds.
When I think about space travel, I am often surprised that we have not lost more lives. The entire process is so complicated. That is what is so amazing about our nation's space program. Despite three disasters that cost some their lives, NASA and the American people have demonstrated their courage by continuing its quest into the final frontier and our successes have far exceeded our failures.

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