NASA observes a solemn day of remembrance the last Thursday in January to remember the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia. That is well and proper, a fitting observance. Remembrance Day serves to remind us of the dangers and difficulties of space flight and our individual role in preventing future accidents.
It is also a day to remember what it means to be a hero. Remembrance Day inspires us to attempt the difficult and dangerous when the potential reward is important and worthwhile.
Those lessons should be remembered on the other 364 days of the year as well. Sometimes I get caught up in hectic daily busy-ness and forget; but never for very long. Ghosts of heroes departed pay regular visits at my house.
I never knew Gus Grissom or Ed White or Roger Chaffee; they died while I was still in grade school. I knew them only as heroes, seen from afar, on television or in magazines and newspapers.
But I worked with Dick Scobee, El Onizuka, and Judy Resnik. And I worked even more closely with Rick Husband and KC (Kalpana Chawla). These I knew well; trained together, struggled alongside, shared jokes together; they were my colleagues.
The others: Ron McNair, Mike Smith, Greg Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Willy McCool, Mike Anderson, Dave Brown, Laurel Clarke, Illan Ramon; I was in meetings, saw them in the halls, but can’t really say that I knew them well.
And I have other colleagues whose names are written on the Astronaut Memorial; they died on duty if not in space.
Biographies have been written of them, their stories have been told on television and movies. So nine, twenty six, or thirty five years later, what can we say about them that hasn’t already been said?
Just one question: what would they want today?
Do you think that they would be proud of their country which can no longer send humans into space? Do you think they would be proud of their space agency which has no coherent plan to continue with exploration? Do you think that they would be proud of their government which has fallen into bickering so badly that even the ½ of 1 percent of the federal budget that used to enable the future has been significantly reduced? Or do you think that they would be proud of a commercial sector that is long on PR and short on delivering new commercial spacecraft?
One of the candidates for the nation’s highest office offers an imaginative space initiative and the other candidates poke fun at it. I don’t know which is worse: offering a goal with no resources or belittling the idea of having goals at all. Personally I am disgusted with the whole process – and the polls tell me that I am far from alone. I wonder what Gus and Dick and Rick would have thought of that, too.
It is clearly presumptuous on my part to imagine what those heroes who made the supreme sacrifice would want. But they were all on record, before they died, giving voice to what they wanted. That record is one we can listen to, read, study, and evaluate.
Without exception, they were going into space because they thought it was worth the cost, worth the risk. They saw the future out there.
It is impossible to build a business plan on exploration of the unknown; some decisions aren’t amenable to the quarterly profit and loss statement. Seward’s folly, Jefferson’s gamble, Teddy’s canal – they were all the butt of jokes and sarcasm. Yet, America, the land of opportunity, was not built by skeptics. America was built by people who were willing to risk everything on a dimly perceived future. Facing the unknown frontier changed Americans and made us what we are. We would be a lesser people if our great-grandparents had not chosen those challenges. The cost was high and many did not live to see the results of their gamble. But as a nation we continued on and became great.
Now where is our frontier? Making corporate profits on Wall Street by moving money around? Now what will inspire our children? Playing video games that are made in overseas sweatshops?
You know better than that. Without the challenge of a frontier stagnation, mediocrity, and decline is our guaranteed future.
Dick and Rick and Gus and the others knew that what they were about was supremely important. Not because of the profit and loss; not because of the potential for near term gain; but because being on the frontier changes us. The challenge makes us better; it clarifies our values; it sets our sights on a better future. It illuminates what really is important.
It reveals heroes who inspire our children and grandchildren and will inspire their children to strive for greater things.
That is, I think, what Rick and Gus and Dick would want.