"Phaeton Descending" is part of the Dataman Space Trilogy,
honoring the astronauts of Challenger, Columbia and Apollo 1.
This site features the song "The Traveler" by Kerry Livgren; 
the audio file is encoded in MP3 format and requires an MP3-compatible browser.
Use the control bar below to listen to the song.
Online since February 18th, 2003

Space Shuttle Columbia STS-107
"This cause of exploration and discovery is not an option we choose;
it is a desire written in the human heart.
We are that part of creation which seeks to understand all creation.
We find the best among us, send them forth into unmapped darkness and pray they will return.
They go in peace for all mankind, and all mankind is in their debt."
President George W. Bush
February 4th, 2003

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"The Fall of Phaeton"

adapted from a retelling of the myth by James Parks and Sally Corbett, 1997,
and from Bulfinch's Mythology

In ancient Ethiopia there lived a young boy by the name of Phaeton.  His mother was an Ethiopian princess, but his father was the sun-god himself.  One day as Phaeton was playing with a friend he boasted that his father was Apollo, the god of the sun.  Phaeton's friend teased him and said, "The sun isn't really your father.  Your mother just made that up and you are foolish to believe such a story."

Phaeton went home confused and ashamed.  He told his mother of the taunt and begged her to give him some proof that he really was the child of the sun.  His mother spoke softly but proudly, "My son, your father truly is the radiant sun, but if you have doubts, then why not go to his palace and speak to him yourself?  Go to the land of the far East and there in the high mountains you will find the glittering palace of your father, the sun."

Phaeton was overjoyed at his mother's answer and made himself ready for the long journey.  He traveled through the land of Persia and crossed the strange land of India.  Finally he came to the gigantic mountains at the eastern end of the world.  The boy climbed into the mountains and found a palace that he immediately knew must belong to Apollo.  Although it was early in the morning and still dark, this tall palace of gold and bronze glowed like fiery coals.  The entrance of the palace was through two huge gleaming silver doors.  On these doors were carved intricate details of the gods and creatures of the earth.

The boy walked through the doorway and came upon a dazzling sight.  There stood a golden-haired young woman dressed in a bright green robe. She was covered with flowers that had been braided into her long yellow hair.  Nearby was a dark haired woman dressed in emerald green, holding an armful of golden grain.  Beside her was a man with auburn hair and dressed in a robe of orange, yellow and red leaves.  His hands were stained purple and he held a cluster of freshly harvested grapes.  Last of all was an old man whose bluish white hair and beard looked like icicles.  These were the four seasons and they stood in a half circle around the brilliant throne.  It hurt Phaeton's eyes to gaze at this throne, for it was made of shimmering jewels, and there, upon the throne, sat Apollo.  The god's eyes blazed like fire and the crown on his head seemed to be made of pure radiant light.

Apollo spoke, "Why have you come here to the far ends of the earth, Phaeton?"

The boy replied, "Sir, I have come to find proof that you, great Apollo, are truly my father."

The sun-god smiled and answered, "Your mother has spoken the truth.  I am your father.  As proof of this I will grant you one wish of your heart's desire."

No sooner had Apollo spoken when Phaeton blurted out, "I wish to drive your chariot, father."

The god of light quickly regretted giving his child a wish and pleaded, "No, my child, choose something else.  You ask for too dangerous a gift.  Even Zeus, the mighty god of thunder, will not drive the chariot of the sun.  The horses breathe out flames and the chariot itself is fiery hot.  So powerful are the steeds that I, a full-grown god, can barely restrain them.  What chance would a mortal boy have?  The journey is steep and at times I myself have grown dizzy looking down from the great heights at the Earth below.  The path through the stars leads near great, dangerous creatures.  You would have to pass Taurus the giant bull and Leo the fierce lion.  If you succeed in getting past them you would face the Scorpion with its huge deadly stinger and the pinching claws of the great Crab.  I beg you to choose some other gift.  Think of all the riches in the world or pearls from the boundless sea.  Ask for any of these and I shall gladly give it to you."

But Phaeton refused to change his mind and insisted on driving the chariot of the sun.  Apollo sighed and led the boy to the magnificent chariot.  It was made of blazing gold, with golden wheels that had spokes of silver.  The chariot was embedded with rubies and other precious gems.  But unlike earthly jewels, these gave off a dazzling glow.  The horses were called and then brought forth by the Hours, goddesses who waited upon the sun.

At the proper time Aurora, goddess of the dawn, opened the curtains of her splendid palace and the skies were filled with a rosy glow.  The sun-god spoke, "It is almost time for the chariot to begin its daily course.  But there is still time for me to take your place.  Heed my plea and let me go forth, my son."

But the lad still had his heart set on driving his father's chariot.  So his father anointed Phaeton's head with a magic oil and then placed the crown of light on the boy's head.  Then he gave instruction, "Do not use the whip on the horses, my child, for the stallions have enough energy to speed forward on their own.  Use the reins to restrain them since you must take the middle path through the heavens.  That will be the safest for you and give the Earth the proper light and heat."

The glow from Aurora's palace had now turned golden and the morning star had set.  Thus the day beckoned the horses of the sun, who were pawing the ground and letting out blasts of fiery flames with each snort.  With a bolt, they charged forth.  But their load was much lighter than what they were used to, so the steeds galloped faster and wilder than usual.

Poor Phaeton was terror-stricken and could barely hold the reins, much less restrain the powerful horses.  Higher and higher the stallions went and thus the rays of the sun chariot grew distant from the Earth.  The sky turned black as night, with the sun only as a speck of light far above.  The horses of the sun raced towards the pole star and in so doing came near the giant serpent.  This serpent for ages past had been sluggish and harmless since it was in the icy-cold regions of the pole star.  But now the great heat from the sun chariot awoke the horrible snake and it hissed, exhaling poisonous breath.

As Phaeton looked down from this great height, his head grew dizzy and he felt sick in his stomach.  With the furious horses of fire racing madly before him, Phaeton wished he had never set foot in his father's chariot.  Now the chariot was careening head-long toward the gigantic Scorpion.  The huge monster raised its tail in an attempt to slash out with its stinger.  Then the fear-struck boy lost his grip on the reins and the unchecked horses galloped downwards.

Closer and closer the fiery chariot came to the Earth.  A thundering roar echoed across the sky as the horses' hooves pounded the air.  Rivers began to dry up, and cities and forests caught fire because of the great heat.  Neptune raised his head from the sea and shook his trident angrily at the chariot of the sun.  But the air was so hot that Neptune soon dove back into the deep blue sea.  As the chariot crossed the continent of Africa it was so close that it set on fire the great Sahara forest.  That wooded region of northern Africa was reduced to ashes and burning sands.

The creatures of the Earth began to cry to Zeus for help because of the unbearable heat.  The gods. the humans, the animals, and the Earth herself were afraid that everything would soon be burned up.  Zeus listened to their plea and then he climbed on high.  He was armed with a thunderbolt and he threw the deadly shaft at the chariot of the sun.  The magic oil that Apollo had put on Phaeton's head had protected the boy from the heat and the flames of the chariot, but it could not save him from Zeus' thunderbolt.  There was a deafening crash as the lightning shattered the chariot and Phaeton fell earthward, wrapped in sizzling flames.  The horses raced home while pieces of the wrecked chariot fell smoking and hissing into the sea.  Phaeton, his hair on fire, fell headlong, like a shooting star which marks the heavens with its brightness as it falls, and Eridanus, the great river, received him and cooled his burning frame.  The Naiads reared a tomb for him, and inscribed these words upon the stone:

"Driver of Phoebus' chariot, Phaeton,
Struck by Jove's thunder, rests beneath this stone.
He could not rule his father's car of fire,
Yet was it much so nobly to aspire."

Quickly Vulcan, the master craftsman of the gods, made a new golden chariot for the sun.  But Apollo was so sorrowful over the death of his son that he refused to drive it.  So the next day passed without sunlight.  Zeus and the other gods then came and pleaded with Apollo, begging him not to leave the world in darkness.  The sun god spoke bitterly of his son's death at the hand of Zeus.  But the chief of the gods replied, "It is true that you have lost a son.  But how many people on Earth were burned up?  I had no choice but to destroy the fiery chariot, otherwise every creature on Earth would have been consumed."

With these words and those of the other gods, Apollo was finally persuaded to return to his rightful duty.  The next day he bridled his fiery horses to the sun chariot and once again the sun traveled its correct course, whence it still gives its proper light and heat to this very day.

An odyssey into the mind's eye...

I can see him...

In my mind's eye, I can see young Phaeton, the child of the sun, setting off on his quest.  Such expectation!  Such anticipation!  Despite lingering doubts, and driven by the unencumbered idealism of youth, the young man strikes out from the comfort and security of his home on the search of his life... to discover who he truly is.

I began at the beginning, and I'm searching for an end
to a question that still lingers in my mind...

The lad knows not when or where he will find the answers that he seeks; he knows not what he will find at his journey's end.  In the face of hardship and doubt, he could so easily return to the familiar life that he has left behind.  But the questions of his childhood drive him onward... inexorably onward.

There's a place that I am drawn to,
and there's something I must find...

His travels take him through strange and unknown lands, where he meets strange peoples with even stranger customs.  Many cannot fathom what drives this "sun's child" to forsake all that he has ever known, all that he has ever loved, to pursue a dream not of this world; many more scoff at what must surely be a fool's errand.  He has journeyed far enough, they say; it is time for him to forsake his childish quest and instead to settle down and live "a responsible life."  But that is not who he is...

Now I have seen the far horizon
at the edge of what is known...

...He is Phaeton, child of the sun, and his destiny lies in the stars, beyond the horizon of human understanding and imagination, beyond the boundaries of the dawn, within the shining domain of Apollo, upon the mountains of the sky.  In his travels he has heard some suggest that his journey itself is his destination, that what he learns and discovers about himself and the world along the way will be the answer that he seeks, but he knows that they are wrong.  His journey exists solely for the sake of his destination.  He is a traveler... and he's on the road to carry him home.

I will roam these vaulted heavens
'til I know I'm not alone...

At long last he reaches the mountains of the sunrise.  How very far he has traveled, how very long he has journeyed, finally to stand before the ramparts of the sun.  He has no map to guide his feet upward toward Apollo's palace, nor does he need one, for he is his father's son.  The mountain paths open before him as he climbs, as if sensing and honoring the approach of the heir of Apollo.  Finally Phaeton reaches the top of the mountain and stands before the palace of the sun, and as he approaches the shining doors that tower before him, his heart and mind sing forth the song within his soul:

I am a traveler ... I'm on a road to carry me home
I am a traveler ... across the sky I roam

From his glorious throne Apollo beams brightly, as when his chariot stands in mid-sky.  All is as it should be.  The father knows the son as the son knows the father.  As proof and as reward to his offspring, the sun-god offers Phaeton any wish of his heart's desire: riches, wealth, jewels, fame, fortune -- anything that a mortal heart could want.  And then Apollo's face darkens, as when Selene of the moon passes before him, as the heir of Apollo rejects mere mortal riches and claims what is his by right of birth: the reins of the chariot of the sun.

Ever reaching, ever hoping,
I will cross the great expanse...

The god of the sun has given his word and is honor-bound to keep it, though it rends his heart to do so.  His son has requested the one thing that Apollo cannot bear to give, nor bear to refuse.  The boy's ears are deaf to his father's warnings and pleadings.  Young Phaeton has reached the end of his wanderings; he has found the fullness of his life and he embraces it passionately, as a lover cleaves to his beloved.  As the shining chariot launches into the sky with the boy at the reins, his father looks on in sorrowful pride, for he knows what his mortal son cannot yet grasp: in order for Phaeton to find his life he must lose it, for only in losing his life will he indeed find it.  It is his destiny.

At the end of all these wanderings,
there is something so immense...

Ah, Phaeton!  For now that he has taken in his hands the reins of the sun, nothing looms so large before him as the mortal terror that he has brought upon himself.  The endless expanse that he had sought to embrace seeks only his destruction, and the face of the Earth below promises only to smash him to bits.  Has he made such a great journey, has he overcome so many obstacles, only to meet such a fearful end?  If only he had been content to remain in the comfort and safety of his childhood home!  If only he had been happy to go on living among the remainder of mankind, in the faceless obscurity of the ordinary lives around him.  If only he had been willing to deny... who he really was... who he really is...

I am a traveler ... I'm on a road to carry me home
I am a traveler ... across the sky I endlessly roam

I can see him...

In my mind's eye, I can see Phaeton still... not the flaming ruin and wreckage that marked his mortal end, but the flaming hope and passion that drove him ever onward toward his goal.  I see him still searching, still seeking, still striving far beyond the horizon of his own knowledge and experience toward a reality he can as yet only dimly perceive.  I see him casting aside confusion and fear, doubt and uncertainty, to cross the vast domains that separate him from his birthright... from his destiny.

Apollo's child is not lost.

He is not alone.

He is a traveler...
and he's on the road to carry him home.


February 1st, 2003
At the edge of what is known...

"Columbia, Houston, you are go for the burn."


"Okay, we copy go for the burn."



"Looks like a blast furnace..."

"Yeah, you definitely
don't want to be
outside now."

 "What, like we did before?"


"Flight, MMACS, I've just lost
four separate temperature transducers
on the left side of the vehicle,
two of them on system one
and one in each of systems
two and three..."


"...all four of them
are located in the aft part
of the left wing,
right in front of the elevons...
all four of them are off-scale low."


"Flight, MMACS, we just lost tire pressure
on left outboard and left inboard,
both tires."

"Columbia, Houston,
we see your tire pressure messages
and we did not copy your last..."


"Columbia, Houston..."


"Columbia, Houston,
comm check..."
"Columbia, Houston, UHF comm check..."

"Columbia... Houston..."






"...Phaeton, his hair on fire, fell headlong,
like a shooting star which marks the heavens
with its brightness as it falls..."


The Travelers...

I can see them...

In my mind's eye, I can see the Columbia Seven still... not the flaming ruin and wreckage that marked their mortal end, but the flaming hope and passion that drove them ever onward toward their goal.  I see them still searching, still seeking, still striving far beyond the horizon of human knowledge and experience toward a reality they can as yet only dimly perceive.  I see them casting aside confusion and fear, doubt and uncertainty, to cross the vast domains that separate them from humanity's birthright... from humanity's destiny.

Apollo's children are not lost.

They are not alone.

They are travelers...
and they're on the road to carry them home.

Colonel Rick D. Husband

I began at the beginning,
and I'm searching for an end...
...to a question that still lingers
in my mind...
Commander William C. McCool

Lt. Colonel Michael P. Anderson

Payload Commander
There's a place that I am drawn to,
and there's something I must find...
Now I have seen the far horizon
at the edge of what is known...
Captain David M. Brown

Mission Specialist
Dr. Kalpana Chawla

Mission Specialist
I will roam these vaulted heavens
'til I know I'm not alone...


I am a traveler ... I'm on a road to carry me home
I am a traveler ... across the sky I roam


Ever reaching, ever hoping,
I will cross the great expanse...
Commander Laurel Blair Salton Clark

Mission Specialist
Colonel Ilan Ramon

Payload Specialist
At the end of all these wanderings,
there is something so immense...


I am a traveler ... I'm on a road to carry me home
I am a traveler ... across the sky I endlessly roam

"The same Creator who names the stars
also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today.
The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth,
but we can pray that all are safely home."
President George W. Bush
February 1st, 2003

Nightfall by Mike Vincent.  Used with permission.


"...and for other purposes..." by Chris Valentine
A Music-Video Essay Honoring the Crew of STS-107
(view a brief trailer for the video here)

"When the Space Shuttle Finally Flies" -- National Geographic, March 1981

2013: Tenth Anniversary Coverage
CNN: NASA, Texas Towns Mark Columbia Disaster
ABC News: Columbia Space Shuttle Crew Remembered
CBS News: Remembering Columbia
Fox News: Ten Years Since Columbia and Crew Lost
NBC News: Space Travel Still Poses Risks
NPR: Ten Years Since Loss of Space Shuttle Columbia

Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report
President Bush's Speech to the Nation, February 1st, 2003
Columbia Commander Rick Husband's Tribute to the Apollo 1 and Challenger Astronauts
President Bush's Memorial Address, February 4th, 2003
Mission Control Transcript of Columbia's Final Minutes
NASA.gov: Remembering Columbia STS-107
Fire in the Sky: A Video Excerpt from TLC's "Blast Off: True Stories from the Final Frontier"
ABC News: Seven Heroes, Seven Faiths
Columbia: The Legend Lives On...
Return to Flight -- Broken Dreams
"Contrails" -- A Memorial in Song by John P.M. Dillon
My Son Jeff's Story of the Columbia
My Children's Columbia Artwork
Columbia Editorial Cartoons
A Personal Reflection by Mark A. Durstewitz
"Space Shuttle Columbia Crash" -- An Essay by Garry D. Wilson

Ongoing Coverage of the Columbia Disaster:

Spaceflight Now: STS-107 Mission Report
CNN Specials: Lost: Space Shuttle Columbia
MSNBC: Columbia Tragedy
NPR: Special Coverage - Space Shuttle Columbia
NASA: Space Shuttle Columbia and Her Crew


Columbia and related images:
Dr. Scott Lieberman - Tyler Morning Telegraph/AP (3)
Eric Long and Mark Avino - Smithsonian Magazine
NASA (17)
The Learning Channel (8)
Joe Dean, Reentry
Gene Belvins - Los Angeles Daily News/AP
Robert McCullough - Dallas Morning News
Terry Renna/AP
Scott Audette/AP
L.M. Otero/AP
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

"Falling Star, Soaring Eagle" cartoon by Ed Stein of the Rocky Mountain News, February 6th, 2003;
"Eternal Columbia" cartoon by Bill Day of the Commercial Appeal, February 14th, 2003

Phaeton and related images:
Bulfinch's Mythology
The Constellation Home Page
C. Desmeure, Phaeton, c. 1875
Sebastiano Ricci, Fall of Phaeton, 1703-04

The song "The Traveler" by Kerry Livgren appears on this site with Mr. Livgren's generous permission.
Lyrics and music by Mike Adams and Kerry Livgren
Lead Vocals by Kreg Hoover
Drums by Chris Kearney
All other instruments by Kerry Livgren

"The Traveler" first appeared in vocal and instrumental forms on the 1996 soundtrack album
Odyssey into the Mind's Eye
on Numavox Records.

Click the above image for more information about this album.

Site concept and design by
Michael E. Brooks, M.Div., Th.M.

Special thanks go to the following people for helping to review this site prior to its debut:

Diana Whay, Bill Evans, Robert Pilaud, Ken Westphal,
Garth Hjelte, Michael Bennett and Greg Hattemer.

Special thanks also go to Chris Valentine for hunting down and providing excerpts
from NASA and Mission Control audio feeds of Columbia's final reentry.

Extra special thanks go to Kerry Livgren for all the music over the years and for his generosity
in allowing me to use one of his songs as the heart of this site.

And finally, unfathomable thanks go to the brave men and women
of the Space Shuttle Columbia STS-107.


"When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the Earth with your eyes turned skyward,
for there you have been, and there you will always long to return."
-- Leonardo da Vinci --

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