February 03, 2003

The Columbia Astronauts I spent

The Columbia Astronauts

I spent a lot of time yesterday thinking about the Columbia astronauts and their ultimate sacrifice. I thought about them as I surfed the Web. I thought about them as I flipped mindlessly through the channels. And I thought about them as I went running in the cool waning Minnesota daylight.

I didn't know the astronauts; I never met any of them. Still, I think I can postulate a bit about who they were even without actually having shaken their hands or dined with them.

They were brave.

I know, I know. Of course they were brave. But, really, that word, brave, really doesn't do them justice. Neither does "courageous." There's really no word to aptly describe someone who totally and completely puts their trust into the engineers, and scientists, and the janitors that sweep the ground control floor, to catapult them into space and bring them safely down again. They didn't think of themselves as special. They knew that anything they accomplished would be the collective result of countless individuals working together on a common mission. Imagine if your daily commute required you to strap yourself atop tons upon tons of solid rocket fuel kept in check by nothing more than human ingenuity. Imagine that, once you arrived at work, you'd be expected to ignore the fact that, outside, beyond not much more than a dime width of metal, was the most inhospitable environment known to man. That's not bravery. That's not courage. That's just incredible.

They were dreamers.

These were people who looked up at the stars and said nothing less than, "I want that." They looked at the moon, not as a nightly curiousity, but as a destination. They epitomized the human quest for exploration. As children, they were no doubt the toddlers who strayed beyond their parents' vision with maddening regularity, simply because they wanted to go a little further than mom and dad would allow. These were people who questioned boundaries. These were people who didn't understand the concept of the word "impossible."

They were ambassadors.

Space doesn't have borders. It doesn't have sanctions. It doesn't have elected officials. Space is inhosbitable, yes, but on the other extreme it's arguably the most beautiful and serene frontier within human grasp, and we send people to learn about it, and to experience it. Granted, others have gone before them, and others will follow, but the lost seven Columbia astronauts were unique ambassadors to space in their own right. They all brought something genuinely human to a realm that has only known humanity for less than half a century. I imagine it's a tough diplomatic assignment to shake hands with infinity.

They were human beings.

A lot has been made out of the fact that one of the seven astronauts was an Israeli, Ilan Ramon, the first ever from his nation to leave earth's embrace. But, really, like Yuri Gagarin and Allen Shepherd before him, I imagine there was a time during his mission, perhaps during take-off, perhaps during descent, that his nationality was eclipsed by his humanity, a flashing moment of epiphany when he realized just how human he was. All astronauts who make it to outer space must look out the window at earth spinning below and wonder at the experience of being human. Not American. Not Israeli. Not Indian. But human. Purely human, with all the dreams and aspirations and fears and frailty that come with being human. For that, even despite their loss, I envy them.

And I mourn them.

Posted by Ryan at February 3, 2003 11:30 AM

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