1 February 2003
by Garry D. Wilson
Yesterday was a very dark day. I didn't hear about the Space Shuttle Columbia crash until early afternoon here, although it happened about 0600 West Coast time. When I first saw the report on TV, I couldn't keep back the tears. I laid my head on my arms and wept for my 'brothers and sisters' who died in that flaming inferno of a fireball ... hopefully, it all happened so quickly that they didn't suffer, but probably not ... I will always regret that I did not know about the reentry being that day, for if I had, I would have been outside to watch them go overhead California, as I did once several years ago ... trailing a beautiful ghostly trail of ionized gas that lingered in the upper atmosphere for an hour afterwards.
And it is so sad that it happened on the mission with the first Israeli astronaut, Col. Ilan Ramon. My dear friends in Haifa, Jacob and Dafna Sheinvald, have a daughter, Kinneret, who is an Air Force F-16 Simulator Instructor in the Israeli Air Force. She had recently conducted some refresher training with Col. Ramon in the simulator, and was so impressed by his gracious manner; not withstanding his status as a National Hero, and his having been selected as the first Israeli astronaut. Kinneret will treasure that memory forever.
A terrible thought crossed my mind ... the intended first teacher in Space: Christa McAuliffe on the Challenger disaster in 1986 ... and now, Col. Ramon, the first Israeli in Space: Columbia disaster ... along with the first astronaut from India, Kalpana Chawla on her second Shuttle mission ... how ironic and how tragic.
The American public has become so casual and blase about Space exploration in general, and Shuttle missions in particular. We, as a nation, have been lulled into a false sense of security. The great safety record established by NASA since the Challenger disaster has resulted in our taking the issue of safety for granted. The naive, uncaring public neither understands nor cares about the very real risks of Space travel ... but of course, those seven astronauts and the NASA engineers certainly understood and appreciated the inherent risks of putting seven fragile humans on top of that rocket, blasting them off with over 500,000 gallons of highly explosive rocket propellant, and then bringing them back to Earth through that 3000 degree furnace created by the friction generated when slamming into the atmosphere at speeds of Mach 25, over 17,000 miles per hour; wrapped in the flimsy cocoon of the Shuttle protected by the thermal tiles ... it certainly does not take much of a failure of the tile system to let that Devil of Fire come creeping in and burning the Shuttle up ... once it began, the process probably accelerated very rapidly ... like "unzipping" a bag ... and once those 3000 degree temperatures reached the skin of the Shuttle body, and then inside, there was no way they could have survived.
Astronaut Story Musgrave was interviewed last night ... he is an extraordinary man ... has many degrees, not only in Science, but he is also an M.D ... flew on several Shuttle missions ... during one of which he was one of the space walkers who captured the spinning Hubble Telescope with his bare hands and repaired the faulty optics, resulting in a magnificent scientific instrument that has revealed more of secrets of our Universe than we could have only imagined before Hubble. On his last Shuttle mission, I think he was almost 70 years old. During the interview last night, Dr. Musgrave described the Shuttle and it's risks as: "Like a beautiful butterfly strapped on the tip of a bullet" ... he put the odds of a fatal accident at about 50:1, a figure that all those astronauts knew and accepted as the price they paid for doing what they loved, and for the benefits to Mankind that they believed far outweighed the risks.
By it's very nature, Space flight is inherently, a very dangerous endeavor. More accidents will happen, and more astronauts will die. I am reminded of an interview with John Glenn the night after the Challenger disaster in 1986; during which he pointed out to the rather naive interviewer that the significance was NOT that this accident had happened. Rather, Glenn said, what was much more significant was that it had not happened more frequently. "Space Flight is Inherently Dangerous", and repeated that more astronauts will die ... and the American public should expect that terrible reality.
Yesterday, 1 February 2003, the sand in the hour glass ran out; tragically ... but what should not be forgotten is that in the 42 years of Space exploration, only 17 of the hundreds of American astronauts who have 'slipped the surly bonds of Earth' have perished.
It is ironic that the three fatal accidents have all occurred within a very few calendar days of each other ... the Apollo One fire during a test on the launch pad on January 27, 1967 that killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee; the Challenger explosion during launch on January 28, 1986, killing all seven astronauts; and now the Columbia crash on reentry. Watching the CBS Sunday Morning news program just now, I was reminded that on 2 February 1986, the same Sunday morning news program opened with the news of the Shuttle Challenger disaster ... 17 years ago to the day, today. Unbelievable timing.
But while tragic, the loss of these seven brave souls is not really the most important aspect to consider here. None of the great explorations of the past were without a toll of Human Life and Sacrifice ... we will; we must, continue the exploration of Space. Just as there was no turning back after the first disasters of the Air Age, there can be no turning back now. We have established a human presence in the Near Space of Earth Orbit, and 12 of our Species have set foot on another World; our nearest Neighbor, the Moon. We can no more abandon our foothold in Space now than we could have turned our backs on the promises of the Air Age during those early days of manned flight.
I thought President Bush's speech yesterday was eloquent ... and I respect him for openly referring to the Biblical passages that he did, and the unashamed references to God and His presence with the Columbia astronauts in the midst of their fiery reentry.
The President quoted from Isaiah 40:26
"Lift up your eyes and look
to the heavens.
President Bush went on to say that although those seven brave souls did not make it back safely to Earth, the same Creator who framed the Universe and named the stars, held those seven Astronauts in the Palm of His Hand; knew them each by name, and took them "safely to their eternal home".
Renee Bondi is a Christian singer and composer. After she broke her neck at the age of 29, fourteen years ago, she almost died, and has been confined to a wheelchair ever since the accident; paralyzed from the neck down, with only very limited movement in her arms and hands. The doctors told her that IF she lived, she would never sing again. She was on a respirator for a very long time, and had to relearn how to breath on her own. Well, she not only survived, but proved the doctors wrong about her singing. She attributes her recovery to the fact that ... "I had very good doctors, AND, the Great Physician"! Today, she travels the World with her husband singing and proclaiming God's Power, Mercy and Grace. Her music has been very inspirational for me these last few months. From her song;
"On Eagle's Wings"
"You who dwell in the shelter of the
Lord, who abide in His shadow for life, say to the Lord: "My Refuge; my
Rock in whom I trust!"
Bear you on the breath on dawn, Make you to shine like the Sun,
And hold you in the palm of His Hand.
The snare of the fowler will never
Under His Wings your refuge,
His Faithfulness your shield. For to His angels He's given a command, To guard you in all of your ways; Upon their hands they will bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against the stone."
And He will raise you up on Eagle's Wings,
Bear you on the breath on dawn, Make you to shine like the Sun,
And hold you in the palm of His Hand."
That same Creator of the Universe who framed the Heavens also instilled the ambition and thirst for exploration into the hearts of those seven brave 'Voyagers' and yesterday, He saw them safely to their final destination ... all the while, holding them in the Palm of His Hand, and sheltering them 'In the shadow of His Wings'.
The sunrise this morning was beautiful, with gorgeous hues of red, yellow and pink splashed across the Eastern sky ... and the thought that came to my mind was that in a very real sense, the molecules of those seven Columbia astronauts' bodies are scattered throughout the atmosphere, and every sunrise and every sunset from now on will be 'flavored' with the essence of their Spirits.
I have had the honor of meeting three of the twelve Moonwalkers; Jim Irwin, Apollo 15; John Young and Charlie Duke, both of Apollo 16. They all said the same thing ... in slightly different ways;
"Dream High and Dare to Fail"
This Sunday morning, those seven multi-national, multi-ethnic, but same-minded heroes, are resting, securely, in The Creator's Hand ... safely Home for the last time. They surely did "Dream High", and far from failing, they left us their legacy which will live on forever, inspiring us on to even greater Heights and Deeper Exploration. And on 1 February 2003, those seven brave Space Shuttle Columbia astronauts ...
"Reached out and touched the Face of God".
This beautiful sentiment is taken from the poem, High Flight, which was written by Pilot Officer Gillespie Magee of the Royal Canadian Air Force shortly before his being shot down and killed in December 1941 in WWII. Over the years, it has become a mantra to all pilots, and is reproduced here as a fitting tribute to the memory of the Space Shuttle Columbia astronauts.
In His Love, and By His Grace,
Garry D. Wilson
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds
Pilot Officer Gillespie Magee