January 28 marked the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. February 1 marked the 8th anniversary of the Columbia disaster. I was in junior high when Challenger exploded. I remember watching it in class, and I remember going home early and being in awe of all the tears being shed by the teachers. I was freaked out by such raw emotion. I remeber being sad, of course, but I was so young that I didn’t truly understand the implications of what I had just witnessed.
I was much older when Columbia exploded. I understood all too well what I had just witnessed with Columbia. I shed my own tears that day.
I remember hearing President Bush’s words: “The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors.” Those words echoed in my head; they haunted me. The astronauts were 16 minutes from home. They had orbited the earth for 16 days and now they were coming home, but they never made it. Sixteen minutes from home. The world watched with held breath as the Columbia made its final, deadly descent from the heavens and seven souls were lost to us. Sixteen minutes from home. We watched and prayed and cried because there was nothing else to do.
Investigators concluded that the shuttle’s fate was likely sealed shortly after takeoff when a piece of insulating foam broke off from the rocket booster and struck the Columbia’s left wing. I wonder if the mission could have been aborted before the shuttle broke free from earth’s atmosphere on its way to the heavens. If not, then the whole time the astronauts were living their dream of flying high above the planet, their doom awaited them at the point of re-entry. I’m still horrified by the thought.
Tragedies like this always seem to bring people together. There’s a collective mourning that strengthens the fiber of our country and our humanity. It’s sad that it takes something like this for us to find a common ground, but I suppose it humbles us all to experience such loss and realize our mere mortality. Of course, television brings these horrifying events into our living rooms and gives them a dimension that no other medium can achieve. The best example of this is September 11. The nation, indeed the world, stood silent that devastating Tuesday morning, and the loss reached across the ether and touched each of our lives. We all remember where we were that morning, as undoubtedly we will never forget where we were when we heard of the loss of the shuttle and its crew.
When something like this happens I often find myself reflecting on the tragedies that have befallen us as a people that are seared into our collective memories and lead us to declare that things must change, and vow that we must work to make the world a better place. These things remind us of the the brevity of our time here, and the utter uncertainty of our existence. And they make us question. Surely, they make us weep.
Our only consolation as we put these brave pioneers to rest was that their final view was of the beauty and fragility of Mother Earth. They saw a world of peace, a world without borders, a world where man lives as one. This was their final gift. And for that we are grateful.