In more recent times we have been less inclined to glance heavenward in the expectation of human eyes being directed back at us. Quite simply, we have largely forgotten about space exploration. It has become less of a miracle than cyberspace, less of a magnet for intellectual curiosity than video games or even science fictions movies depicting the exploration of distant galaxies.
And yet, when things go wrong in space, we are immediately drawn back from our more earthbound concerns and reminded that humanity’s desire to reach for the distant and mysterious is unquenchable.
The disaster that befell the space shuttle Columbia last weekend reminded us all of our vulnerability and the foolishness of believing that humans have “conquered” space. Far from it. We are still dipping our toes in the water’s edge.
At the same time, while space flight still poses great risks, the “we” who are exploring it has changed markedly. The early days astronauts were all-American boys who undoubtedly had the right stuff. These days, astronauts for the U.S. space program are drawn from every race and ethnic group and a number of countries. The sex barrier has also been broken. Two of the Columbia crew were women, one of them having been born in India. Another crew member was from Israel. The shuttle’s pilot, William McCool, could trace a direct family line to County Donegal. We are all reaching for the stars now even if most of us are most days, and nights, too distracted by terrestrial matters to pay heed.
The Columbia crew, through their lives, their work and, tragically, their deaths, served as a reminder to the world that America is more than just the economic and military superpower of contemporary stereotype.
The United States is the broad body upon which most other nations will ultimately piggyback their way into space and toward our collective destiny. The sad fate of Columbia and her crew was not just a loss to America, but to a world that more than ever needs to dream of and reach for creation that is not of this place.