Shuttle Columbia

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It’s not the scale of the tragedy, but what it symbolizes to me. I’m crying for the family and friends of the astronauts and I’m crying for every one of us who ever dreamed we’d be up there, too.

I remember crying when my parents showed me the newspaper with the article about the January 27, 1967 launchpad fire which killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee of what was later designated the Apollo 1 mission. I still shudder when I imagine three brave men, remaining astronaut-calm as they struggled to unseal the tin can they’d been bolted into.

I remember struggling not to cry as I stood with Mike Hughes and Ed Gonzalez in the shoestore we managed on January 28, 1986, listening to the radio broadcasting the immediate aftermath of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Later, at home, I, like so many people around the world, remained fixated on my television, watching images of the eerily silent explosion over and over again.

This morning, I felt the same way, the internet alerting me to the first signs of disaster. The images of a hurtling white dot, suddenly separating into smaller and smaller pieces… There are families grieving, nations mourning, and an entire world, looking up at the blue or cloudy or precipitous sky.

I was born in the first full year of the US Manned Space Program, and I was so sure, all my growing-up years, that I would be living in space. Our space dreams are so small today: NASA practically begging Congress for funds to send up a telescope, a fly-by of Pluto, another shot at Mars. We should be living on Mars, on the Moon, on the asteroids by now. Instead, as Richard Fienberg, editor af Sky & Telescope magazine said in his editorial in the December, 2002 issue, “In 1972 we had three guys exploring the Moon, making discoveries. In 2002 we have three guys circling the Earth, making repairs.”

With today’s crash, we’re sure to see a halt to shuttle flights for several months or a year. What happens to our commitments to the International Space Station? What happens to our big dreams? We waste our resources on making the rich richer, our expectations lower, our wishes smaller, our world poorer…