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« The Conclave Without a Funeral | Main | January 28, 1986 »

Comm Check

It’s one of those big round number events which supposedly bring greater meaning than the odd numbers—ten years now since the loss of Columbia.Buzz Aldrin saluting the graves of Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom (with Indiana flags) and Roger Chaffee at Arlington National Cemetery. Ed White is buried at West Point.

I didn’t know my husband in 2003. (The man who was in my life at that moment was, I believe, placed there precisely because had a steady heart rate and a box of Kleenex.)  I also didn’t know that the life I thought I was going to make for myself as a space educator in Florida would last a grand total of one year and then become a  procession of packed boxes and I-9 forms. There’s a reason why the future unfolds one second at a time; “Your father will sicken and die, the people in your life will dedicate an entire page of their address books to your cross-outs, and the 'Play Like a Champion Today' plaque will come down off your wall” is too much to bear in one dump.

Because I am pathetically grateful when the media pays any attention at all, I almost reflexively retweeted a news story about a documentary on Columbia before reflecting that I might, you know, actually read the thing.  This is the first sentence: "’Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope’ puts a fresh spin on the 10-year-old story, turning the tragic loss of Columbia and its crew into an uplifting tale of the human spirit.”  

A “fresh spin.”  Because the reality of seven human beings, all with families, toothbrushes, and alma maters perishing in the greatest undertaking in human history is dripping and flat, requiring the talents of a producer and an editing crew to make it palatably interesting.

I prefer instead astronaut Mike Massimino’s tribute, which required a grand total of 165 words and yet conveyed the humanity and reality of the lost.  This was from the start an unusually close crew with plenty of time to get to know one another; since the mission wasn’t a time-sensitive ISS affair, but a good old-fashioned orbiting science party, it was delayed and delayed and delayed.  They were united in their waiting.  They were, as it happened, preparing to enter eternity together.

The big round number caught me unawares, because in some ways I'm still waiting for the answering call over the comm.  The entire mission is last-week vivid.  I remember that Columbia was on the pad so long the external tank foam baked to a sickly pale orange in the Florida sun. I remember watching NASA TV with Nick The NASA Poobah in the office, staring live video of a not-particularly-exciting-looking experiement underway and thinking, "That bubble ain't much, but it's in space and I'm standing here in Florida looking at it in real time."  I remember walking along the crayon drawings the children left at the Astronaut Memorial, and I remember the tiny vase of flowers with the black ribbon I placed next to a photo of the crew.  I remember standing up in front of people  from England and South Carolina and Racine who planned to see the great towering rockets of NASA on their sunny Florida vacation and instead here was this sad blonde talking about memorial speakers and Congressional inquiries.  I remember the hastily constructed, unlabeled building by the side of the road that I wasn’t supposed to talk about, the one where trucks from Texas were pulling up at all hours of the day and night.

What bothers me the most about this big round number is that although the space tourism market is stronger, as this guy points out, as a nation we are now able to credibly fake a moon landing but utterly unable to pull it off for real.  There was a great deal of talk in the wake of the accident about “Return To Flight,” and it happened... and then we un-returned from flight with little to replace it. 

Last year Atlantis was retired at the Kennedy Space Center, rolling from OPF to museum destination in a great, slow parade with an honor guard of astronauts fanned at the front, a funeral procession if I ever saw one.  Better an orbiter in a softly lit, humidity-controlled room than crammed in some warehouse under a dropcloth, but the fact remains that Atlantis isn’t going anywhere any more than she did in the first horrific days after Columbia never returned to the landing strip.

This happened.  It was real and it was terrible and it doesn’t require spin or repackaging or a Very Special Look Back.  Seven human beings left the Earth to explore space.  They served their mission and died on the way home. They died seventeen years after we’d already lost seven shuttle astronauts and about eighteen months after the deepest, most penetrating shock we’d ever experienced as a nation, and because of this, their loss is filed by the American psyche as “Tragic, But Not As Searingly Terrible As The Other Things.” Even their monument at Arlington National Cemetery bears their mission patch but not their faces, as Challenger’s memorial does.

Rick Husband.  Willie McCool.  Dave Brown.  Kalpana Chawla.  Laurel Clark.  Mike Anderson.  Ilan Ramon. 

Don’t lose them again.

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