American Outlook Today
February 4, 2003
By Alan W. Dowd

They were coming home. Their 16-day journey carried them into space, around our fractured globe and back to the very edge of earth. As before, it happened against the bright blue backdrop of a winter morning, in that netherworld where space and sky collide. And as before, there were seven of them, their names and faces now claimed by history and etched into the memory of three nations.

America has never lost a crew on the way home—not when the heat shields came loose on John Glenn’s Friendship 7, not when Gus Grissom’s Mercury Redstone unexpectedly blew open after splashdown, not when part of Apollo 13 tore away on approach to the moon. Never, that is, until last Saturday. Columbia’s crew now joins that of Challenger and the Apollo capsule in what remains a mercifully small memorial hall of American astronauts. 

What always amazes me at moments like this is that moments like this are so rare—rare enough to shock us, to stop us, to bring us together, to make us cry. Just consider what this delicate mix of man, metal and machinery does under normal circumstances: It lifts off from earth like a rocket, races around earth like a satellite hundreds of times, picks up stranded cosmonauts and astronauts, services space stations and telescopes, and then glides home on a fountain of fire, before gently touching down like any passenger airplane.

Yet after 113 shuttle flights and 22 years, takeoffs aren’t televised; spacewalks aren’t broadcast; landings aren’t reported. This man-made miracle of space travel is so seemingly effortless and commonplace that it’s but a footnote for us. It’s just part of what our country does, as banal as enforcing a no-fly zone.

Of course, if this were true, our country wouldn’t have come to a full-stop on Saturday morning. It wasn’t true for McCool, Husband, Chawla, Clark, Ramon, Anderson and Brown. And it certainly isn’t true for their families, whose grief we now all share.

Columbia’s Seven came from America, India and Israel. Together, they went into space. And together, they died in space, on a mission that, in a sense, will never end. Kalpana “K.C” Chawla was born in India and became an American citizen. Ilan Ramon was a fighter pilot and hero of the Yom Kippur War, leader of the daring preemptive raid against Iraq’s nuclear facilities in 1981, and the first Israeli to go into space.

His father fought in Israel’s war for independence. His mother survived the Holocaust. In those dark days when Europe was dominated by monsters, I doubt even her wildest dreams or boldest prayers could have contemplated that one day her own son would pierce the heavens and orbit the earth. God’s words to Abraham take on new meaning in the shooting star that Ramon and his Columbia shipmates became: "Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them. So shall your offspring be."

Of course, the symbolism doesn’t end there. Together, these six Americans and one Israeli paint a symbolic picture of the solidarity our great peoples share, of our common yearning to discover, of our willingness to take great risks—and in this time of war and siege, of the sacrifice our best and bravest are willing to make for something bigger than themselves.

We will mourn theses seven lives and explore the causes of this disaster. But just as their mission did not end, America’s mission in space must not end. When the Challenger was lost, America resisted the pull into space for more than two years. We may not have that luxury today. Even now, there are three people stranded on the International Space Station. And as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has argued, “More than any other country, the United States relies on space for its security and well-being.” The United States has more than 800 active satellites and probes orbiting the earth at this very moment. Indeed, the Pentagon and CIA are in the midst of a massive effort to replace their entire fleet of satellites over the next decade. For the foreseeable future, it is the Space Shuttle program that will deliver and service many of these.

Reminding Americans that this mission must go on will fall to President George W. Bush, whose shoulders are already loaded down with heavy burdens. His presidency has been compared to so many others—the bitter divisions and narrow victory of Thomas Jefferson’s first term; the shock and surprise of world war that marked FDR’s last terms; the crucial, courageous first steps taken by Harry Truman in the cold war that followed. Now, in the winter of 2003, Bush must take on the mantle of consoler in chief, just as Ronald Reagan did in the winter of 1986.

On Saturday, Bush seemed up to the task: “Lift your eyes and look to the heavens,” he said, quoting the prophet Isaiah. Indeed, the Columbia Seven were the kind of people that forced us, if only for a moment, to turn our eyes toward the heavens, to look upward and outward. 

We have lost Columbia’s crew, but as Israel’s prophet—and America’s president—have reminded us, “not one of them is missing.”