Eighteen years ago today, in the second and last major catastrophe of the Space Shuttle program, we lost Columbia and her crew. Tragically, as with Challenger, this loss might have been avoidable had we found a better way to secure the insulating foam around the external tank that ended up breaking loose, damaging Columbia’s left wing, and leaving the shuttle’s airframe vulnerable to being pierced by hot gases on re-entry. On the other hand, judging such things foreseeable is often all too easy with the benefit of hindsight. Sometimes in the dangerous endeavor of spaceflight, however diligently we may try to anticipate all scenarios and control all the variables, unexpected stuff happens and there’s not much we can honestly do but chalk our failures up to bad luck. There is danger in this grand adventure. We know it. And we go anyway.
Columbia had the proud distinction of being the first shuttle to fly. I remember learning about and watching that first flight from my 4th grade classroom in Los Angeles, and somewhere I probably still have the excited pencil scrawlings of my 4th grade self celebrating this human accomplishment and imagining myself one day as an astronaut taking the same journey to space.
Bill Whittle’s 2003 essay, Courage, written in the wake of the loss of Columbia, captures the magic and tragedy of it all in soaring poetry I have not seen surpassed anywhere. I can’t recommend it highly enough.