This is a bitter-sweet post to say the least, but my favorite for some time. This week marked the ten-year anniversary of Space Shuttle Columbia’s breakup upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. This was a very, very bad day for America’s space program and especially for the family and friends of those who were unknowingly guiding the stricken Shuttle back home. In college I followed the Shuttle Program very closely and I would often stay up to watch launches and recoveries as they never stopped being big, fascinating events for me. On the evening of January 31st 2003, I checked NASA’s website to get Columbia’s reentry and landing time. Upon doing so I realized it was going to be a bit too early on the west coast for me to watch live, so I settled for watching video of it later in the day. I woke up at 8:15 or so and turned on the TV to live news coverage with a banner across the bottom saying “Space Shuttle Columbia Lost.” I was sickened to the point I had to sit down. I was only five when the Challenger blew up, although I saw it live to the best of my memory, so this was the first time I had seen such a loss and understood exactly what it meant. Like 9/11, but without an enemy to focus one’s frustrations, this event hit me hard, maybe harder than it should have. Months of coverage about the disaster would follow. We would learn more about those onboard and how foam can blast holes in solid carbon-carbon panels when traveling at high speed. America’s space program was in turmoil, the effects of which continue to reverberate even ten years later.
Yesterday a good contact of mine made one of the best Facebook posts of the year so far. Zip is the PAO at NAS Fallon, Home of TOP GUN and NSAWC, and he has lived and loved aviation his who life just like many of us. He also happened to be personal friends with STS-107 Mission Specialist David “Doc” Brown, an accomplished Naval Aviator, Flight Surgeon and Astronaut. Just the resume tells us that this guy is one special American.
Anyways, Zip posted the email, copied below, to celebrate his friend memory and for others to enjoy. The letter was sent by “Doc” right before Columbia began her doomed”de-orbit” profile. For someone who had no idea it would be their last message to their friends, family, and the world as a whole, it was just about as introspective and telling of just how unique the quality of the person we send into space truly is:
From: MS1 [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Friday, January 31, 2003 12:39 PM
Subject: Flight Day 16
It’s hard to believe but I’m coming up on 16 days in space and we land
I can tell you a few things:
Floating is great – at two weeks it really started to become natural. I move
much more slowly as there really isn’t a hurry. If you go to fast then
stopping can be quite awkward. At first, we were still handing each other
things, but now we pass them with just a little push.
We lose stuff all the time. I’m kind of prone to this on Earth, but it’s
much worse here as I can now put things on the walls and ceiling too. It’s
hard to remember that you have to look everywhere when you lose something,
not just down.
The views of the Earth are really beautiful. If you’ve ever seen a space
Imax movie that’s really what it looks like. What really amazes me is to see
large geographic features with my own eyes. Today, I saw all of Northern
Libya, the Sinai Peninsula, the whole country of Israel, and then the Red
Sea. I wish I’d had more time just to sit and look out the window with a map
but our science program kept us very busy in the lab most of the time.
The science has been great and we’ve accomplished a lot. I could write more
but about it but that would take hours.
My crewmates are like my family – it will be hard to leave them after being
so close for 2 1/2 years.
My most moving moment was reading a letter Ilan brought from a Holocaust
survivor talking about his seven-year old daughter who did not survive. I
was stunned such a beautiful planet could harbor such bad things. It makes
me want to enjoy every bit of the Earth for how great it really is.
I will make one more observation – if I’d been born in space I know I would
desire to visit the beautiful Earth more than I’ve ever yearned to visit to
space. It is a wonderful planet.
Thank you Doc for your service and for sharing your talents with America as a whole, and thank you especially for bringing everything into perspective to us terrestrial dwellers via your brilliant last words. Astronauts are truly the finest Americans on the planet, that is why they are allowed to leave it from time to time. Columbia’s crew included Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla, Commander Rick Husband, Mission Specialists Laurel Clark and David Brown, Pilot Willie McCool, Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon and Payload Commander Michael Anderson, they will not be forgotten. Your level of expertise and dedication are something every American should aspire towards.
With all the bad news out there everyday which often highlights the worst examples of humanity, it is nice to celebrate and remember those who exemplified the exact opposite.