Death in the Family
Then, in 1999, January 28th became the day my first child was born. It didn't make the memory of the Challenger go away, but it subdued it somehow, muted it; made it -- the day -- part of a larger picture, part of the layers of memory that make up a life. January 28th is now my son Tom's birthday, and, dimmer, a tragedy from long ago.
Tom's fourth birthday party was today, and our backyard was filled with children who didn't have any idea that another seven astronauts had just died, in a craft that fell to pieces 200,000 feet over Texas. They laughed and played games and ate cake and -- I hope -- it will be that memory that I take with me this time. The destruction of Columbia is there too, of course, but dimmer, further away.
I truly believe that the most important thing we can do, as a species, is make our way into space. I also think that the most important thing we can do, as individuals, as parents, is make our children happy, make sure they are healthy and safe and loved.
One of those goals suffered a devastating setback this morning, a loss for seven families, the space program, the country, humanity. The other goal, though, took a tiny step forward. I choose to remember, or try to remember, the last as the more significant.
Because the real legacy that heroes like the crew of the Columbia leave behind, the real lesson they teach, is that determination trumps failure, and hope trumps despair, and joy trumps sorrow. Seven brave men and women died today, high up in the atmosphere, furthering the bounds of human knowledge. They died building a future that Tom and his brothers will live in. They died making the world a better place for my children, making the world a better place for all of us.
And I can think of no better way to commemorate their sacrifice than by remembering this day the way they would have wanted it to be: filled with laughter and games and cake, filled with determination and hope and joy, filled with the future they were helping create.
My dad called with the news this morning. "Have you heard about Columbia?" he asked. [More...]
When I was fourteen years old I was determined to be an astronaut. At first it was a dream fueled equally by Star Wars and a desire to be very far from home when I grew up.
But then I met Ed Onizuka, a real-life NASA astronaut, engineer, and Air Force pilot. He spoke to students at a local school, signed some photos, shook some hands, and did a couple events in town. I made my mother drive me and a friend to each point on Mr. Onizuka's itinerary. He brought unearthly items with himheat protection tiles from the space shuttle, the fishbowl inner helmet from a space suitand spoke of his work with a quiet enthusiasm which was absolutely riveting. At his third event for the day, he recognized me as I came to the head of the line to shake his hand once again. I immediately started to blurt a much-considered technical question, wanting desperately to impress this astronaut, but he smiled and held up his hand to stop me. "Tell you what," he said, pushing his pen across the table to me. "This time, you write down your name and address, and we'll get all your questions answered."
A few weeks later, a large packet of material about the space shuttle program arrived, with a brief note from Mr. Onizuka. "This should help get you started." I devoured everything, covered my walls with pictures and technical diagrams of the space shuttle, and filled out every reply card for more information. A few months later, Mr. Onizuka flew in the space shuttle Discovery -- it was a Department of Defense mission, but I tried to follow every detail. I redoubled my efforts in math and science classes, and, the next summer, I wrote Mr. Onizuka care of NASA, thanking him and asking a myriad of questions about zero-G and astronaut training. Within a few weeks I received another reply, answering each question, and including a uniform patch for STS-51L, his next shuttle flight.
That January, Mr. Onizuka died in the Challenger explosion. Yes, I remember exactly where I was when I first heard of the disaster.
I did not become an astronaut, but I still follow the details of shuttle flights, and I regularly abuse the privilege of knowing a few people who work for NASA and JPL by peppering them with questions. I've been known to watch NASA TV for hours while an orbiter is in flight.
This morning, waking to television images of contrails racing across a clear Texas sky, all I can think about is the friends and families of the crew of the space shuttle Columbia. And Mr. Onizuka.
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