Wednesday, February 2, 2011


As for myself, I was never too deeply affected by the loss of the space shuttle Challenger - only because for me, it had always happened. January 26, 1986 was less than a month after my third birthday, a time when my life was almost exclusively focused around television and getting excited about trucks. I may not have even recognized the existence of space as a thing in and of itself. When I learned about Challenger, even though I was in the world on that day I learned it as history.

Not so with the space shuttle Columbia. Eight years and one day ago, I was in the middle of my second year at Trent University, and space launches had become routine. They ere even making good progress on a space station up there. So when the news reached me of the disaster, of the shuttle coming apart on reentry, I was hit by the punch of history repeating - and being in a position to directly experience it for the first time.

I'll say that I cried. I mourned. It wasn't just the seven astronauts who would never come home - it was everything that Columbia represented, that grand future whose eventual arrival I'd always taken for granted, and which was now really in the balance for the first time I could remember.

We've come back from that - but in fits and starts. That future is still in the balance even today. There's no certainty anymore, just drifting speculation that can never latch on to anything long enough to be real. But we can't forget. To knuckle under, to abandon that intrepidity that takes us beyond the sky, it wouldn't just be a loss for us; it would be a betrayal to all those who come after.

In February 2003, I was a regular contributor to Absynthe Magazine, a student publication on the Trent campus. In recognition of the day, I'm reproducing an article I wrote that appeared in the first edition after Columbia's destruction - and while it's plain to see that I had a hell of a lot to learn about writing back then, as a window into that time I think it's still worthwhile.

After Columbia, we must press on
By Andrew Barton

Many of us are too young to remember the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger. On January 28th, 1986, the world watched as the shuttle and its seven crew members dissolved in a cloud of fire, a disaster from which the American space program took years to recover. On February 1st, this disaster was echoed in a high-altitude whisper as the space shuttle Columbia, active since 1981, broke apart on re-entry 200,000 feet above Texas. While NASA will undoubtedly scale back shuttle missions in the near future, it would be a grave disservice to the memories of the seven astronauts aboard Columbia to scale back the scope of the space program. We must not be cowed by this disaster and cower within the atmosphere, but be inspired to go faster and farther in spite of the dangers.

In his address to the nation in the wake of the disaster, President George W. Bush spoke on the dangers of considering space flight to be routine, and offered words indicative of a strong support of the space program. In a political climate where NASA has been routinely starved of funds to fund inefficient Medicare or corporate welfare programs, Bush's words and actions suggest a President willing to re-establish the United States as a spacefaring superpower.

"The cause in which they died will continue," Bush said. "Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey to space will go on."

Though it is said that nothing worth doing is, or for that matter could possibly be, completely safe, the immediate aftermath of the Columbia's destruction saw a litany of voices rise up to challenge what they saw as billions upon billions of dollars sacrificed for no real return. Extreme proponents of this position have as of late begun to latch onto the disaster as a fulcrum for making their views known, claiming that the space program itself is a waste of resources that could be better spent solving Earth's problems. While the underlying motivations for this course of action are commendable, the fact remains that to cancel the space program would confine the human race to a single world, vulnerable to the capricious whims of nature.

One hundred years ago, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky expounded on the theories that made the modern shape of space exploration possible. Of his quotes, among the most widely known is, "Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever." To give up on the adventure of space would be to act as an ostrich burying its head in the sand when predators draw near. Certainly, the exploration of space is dangerous, but space itself is dangerous. Beyond the thousands upon thousands of asteroids that cross Earth's orbit, with many more yet to be detected, there are the dangers of supernovae, interstellar molecular clouds, rogue black holes, and a host of other potential disasters that could scour life from this planet as if it had never been.

Space may appear quiet and tranquil, but the truth is very much the opposite. It is quite possibly the most dangerous frontier humanity has ever faced, while simultaneously the most bountiful. All we must do is take up its challenges, for otherwise, we will have doomed ourselves within reach of the final frontier.

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