Just two days ago, the tenth anniversary of the shuttle Columbia disaster came to pass. On that day, the pilots who lost their lives, as well as those who died on the Challenger and Apollo 1 missions, were commemorated at a special wreath-laying ceremony at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. It is a somber day, when people all over the world come together to commemorate those brave souls who died in the name of advancing exploration.
The disaster took place on Feb. 1st 2003, roughly sixteen days after the shuttle departed from Earth to conduct microgravity experiments. During re-entry, contact was lost with the shuttle as the orbiter suffered a catastrophic failure due to a breach that had opened in one of the shuttle’s wings. This had occurred during launch when a piece of foam fell from the external tank during launch.
The seven person crew of the STS-107 Columbia, which included Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, David Brown, Laurel Blair Salton Clark, Michael P. Anderson, Ilan Ramon, and Kalpana Chawla, died just 15 minutes before they were meant to touch down at Kennedy Space Center. Addressing the nation, then-President Bush said, “mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on.”
On Feb. 1st, President Obama and Charles Bolden, Administrator for NASA, also marked the occasion with somber words of remembrance. The former emphasized the ongoing important of space exploration and its inherent risks:
“The exploration of space represents one of the most challenging endeavors we undertake as a Nation. Whether it’s landing a 1-ton rover on Mars, building a space telescope 100 times more powerful than the Hubble, or preparing to send humans beyond the Moon, it’s imperative America continues to lead the world in reaching for the stars while giving us a better understanding of our home planet.”
Bolden expressed similar sentiments, calling to mind other tragedies and drawing attention to the lessons learned from the disaster:
“After the tragedy of Columbia, we not only returned to flight, we established policies and procedures to make our human spaceflight program safer than ever. Exploration will never be without risk, but we continue to work to ensure that when humans travel to space, nothing has been left undone to make them as safe as possible.”
Naturally, I hope he’s right about that. As we embark on an era of renewed exploration – to the Moon, to Mars, and even beyond – there will plenty of risk incurred and only a few people bold and intrepid enough to risk their lives to see it done. Much like veterans who died in the name of peace, we should never forget those explorers who died in the name of advancing humanity’s knowledge, awareness, and understanding of the universe.
Rest In Peace you brave souls!