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We Know It’s Dangerous; Why Do We Go?

Posted by Rick Shaffer   05/15/2004 12:00AM

We’ve all been stunned by our second Space Shuttle accident. We lost three brave souls in the Apollo I fire, and seven more in the Challenger accident. On Saturday morning, high over East-Central Texas, we lost another seven. (And, of course, we’ve lost ten astronauts in airplane crashes. All are heroes….)

I watched Columbia as it passed North of my home in Sedona Saturday morning. I’m an astronomer, so I spend a lot of time looking at the sky. I’m a regular observer of satellites, not for any scientific purposes, but just for fun. It’s ironic, then, that this was the first time I’ve seen a shuttle reenter Earth’s atmosphere.

Since Columbia was passing over Southern Utah, I wanted to make sure to have a good view of the Northern sky, so I watched from a scenic overlook at the Sedona Airport Mesa. There were high, thin clouds in our sky, which obscured all but the planets Jupiter, Mars and Venus and a few bright stars. I wasn’t optimistic that I would see the reentry.

A few minutes before the scheduled arrival of Columbia, I was joined by a man who I learned was visiting from Boston. Ken Pitts is chief financial officer of a charitable foundation there, and had come up to Sedona for a few days after attending a meeting this week in Scottsdale. We chatted as we faced North.

Suddenly, a bright orange-red object emerged from the gloom above Capital Butte. It was trailed by a bright white stream of what I was sure was plasma, air heated by the passage of the shuttle due to friction to the point that its atoms are broken up into their component parts. I saw no separate objects reentering with the main body, so I had no indication of what was to come. Aside from the technical details, it was just plain beautiful. That it was my fellow citizens returning home from a job well done made it all the more special.

Columbia was moving much faster through the sky than the typical satellite we see every night. That was because it was much lower and closer to me than an orbiting satellite. It really wasn’t going nearly as fast as it had in orbit, because it was already in the upper atmosphere.

I was so taken by the beauty of what I was seeing that it never occurred to me to look at the Shuttle through my binoculars. A few moments later, Columbia was lost in the clouds of the brightening horizon to the North-Northeast.

It’s an illustration of how confident we all are about the safety of the Space Transportation System that I chatted with Mr. Pitts about charter schools instead of rushing home to see the landing. When I did get home, I went to bed to get a couple of hours more sleep after a long week. So I missed the early coverage of the accident.

I was also among the 300,000 others who witnessed the first landing of Columbia at Edwards Air Force Base in California in April, 1981. The details aren’t important, except for one. We were on the desert floor all night, awaiting the early-morning landing. Despite the large number of people crammed into the makeshift viewing area, the Air Police only had to break up one fight. Everyone there was so positive about the upcoming event that almost all of us put aside the petty bickering of our daily lives to celebrate the landing. When Columbia rolled to a stop, a huge cheer broke out. There were goosebumps on the back of my neck. It was like attending the Super Bowl, only everyone’s team won!

What I’ve written of my personal reminiscences of the Shuttle Program is positive. But, of course, the two accidents illustrate the reality of space travel. Children grow up without a parent. Spouses, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, all their other relatives and friends grieve for their lost loved ones. They’ve all said that their loved one “died doing exactly what she always wanted to do.” But that won’t diminish the hurt and loss even a little bit.

Why do we go into space? My answer may seem flippant, but we go because we must. We go because we, as a group, want to know what makes the Universe tick. We go because, when we explore the Universe, whether it’s through a microscope, at the bottom of the ocean, or aboard a dangerous vehicle like the Shuttle, we’re all attending Humanity’s Super Bowl, and everyones’s team really does win.

Rick Shaffer is a writer, astronomer, and teacher who lives in Sedona, AZ. The third edition of his book, Your Guide to the Sky, was published by Lowell House in 1999. He teaches Astronomy at Yavapai College and is currently writing a book about light pollution for a major supporter of the national parks.