They gave their lives in the fulfillment of their dreams
Space flight has inspired us even as far back in time as when "state-of-the-art" was a hot air balloon. What Jules Verne began through his creativity in From the Earth to the Moon has been carried over the years by the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh, Neil Armstrong, and countless others. Space flight has been one of the greatest achievements of the 20th Century - one could argue that it is the greatest achievement - that we have been lucky enough to continue into this century. But as we have on occasion been reminded, it can be a cruel and unforgiving form of exploration.
It is impossible to express what the Columbia space shuttle disaster means to all of us. What purpose will it serve? Will it lead to renewed dedication or necessary criticism as we saw after the 1967 Apollo fire and the 1986 Challenger disaster? Today it is too early to tell. Instead I propose to those who wish to commemorate the lives lost in the space shuttle Columbia that they take a few minutes, read the names of each crew member, and read their biographies. Although write-ups of their lives are everywhere - CNN.com, USAToday.com, MSNBC.com, etc. - a great place to start is at the source, NASA or the Kennedy Space Center.
An exceptional rookie astronaut, even among other astronauts
This mission, NASA space mission STS-107, was in many ways no different than so many space shuttle missions after the Challenger disaster. It was a "routine" mission. The exceptional part of this Columbia crew was one payload specialist, Colonel Ilan Ramon of the Israeli Air Force. When I first saw a picture of Col. Ramon I thought, "Wow, this guy must be something else to have been handpicked as Israel's first astronaut." I figured that his privilege to fly in space must have been a form of recognition for years of service to his small country. As it turns out I was only partly right. Just one year out of high school, Ramon fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. This was an especially brutal war both on the ground and in the air. He then became a fighter pilot in 1974, logged over 3,000 miles in a mix of fighter jets, and flew combat missions in Israel's 1982 War in Lebanon..
The next widely reported fact about Col. Ramon is what he did in 1981. On Jun 7, 1981, eight Israeli F-16 fighter jets flew into Iraq and destroyed a nuclear reactor under construction outside of Baghdad. World opinion, except for the United States, found this to be appalling. I remember thinking back then that it was nothing short of heroic, and it was indicative of the gutsy culture of the the Israeli government and its military. Col. Ramon flew one of the fighters that bombed that nuclear reactor. He was an Israeli hero. This was enough for me, but his biography told me more.
Col. Ramon was an accomplished engineer. During the mid 1990s he led different research and development offices as he rose in the Israeli Air Force. By the time he began astronaut training in 1998 his career resembled that of the Original Seven astronauts, as opposed to the role of scientist/astronaut for which he was chosen. His work while at NASA reveals that he had the keen engineering mind to match his skills as a jet fighter pilot.
The legacy of Columbia's last journey
The bittersweet finale of the Columbia crew is that they were returning from a successful space mission. The Challenger crew was cut short on their way into orbit, but for sixteen days the crew of Columbia went about their business. It now seems apparent that they were mindful of their privilege to fly in space. They were in fact also fulfilling the dreams of millions around the world. And dreams should not be underestimated.
In this same spirit, while we mourn the loss of seven lives, we should for a brief moment feel happy at their accomplishments and fulfillment. They "went about their business," maintaining a link in a chain of space travelers that will continue long after them.
As far as we have come since Yuri Gagarin's first space flight in 1961, hundreds of years from now people will look back on our space accomplishments as simply first steps. Having orbited the earth, landed on the moon, and lived in a series of space stations, we have only started to reach out into space. Now it falls upon us and future generations to remember another set of pioneers as we continue pushing towards the future.
Space has always been a part of ideas and events.com
Astronaut biographies and other stories of space exploration form some of our favorite books. The 1967 Apollo 1 fire made a lifelong impact on every space pioneer of the 1960s. Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins relates this and many other stories in Carrying the Fire.
But we have other NASA stories to pass on. Ideas and events.com has recently expanded with book reviews in Amazon.com. Read our book review of Collins' Liftoff and Deke Slayton's autobiography Deke! Our reviews are listed under the author firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted Monday February 3, 2003.