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A dream takes a hit


Fri, Feb 7th, 2003
Posted in Columnists

I am just a little too old to be a true "Sputnik-baby", but not by much. Growing up with spaceflight, I was just old enough to appreciate the thrill of the earliest successes. I believe I was too young and maybe we were all too sheltered to have thoroughly felt the impact of early failures.

Spaceflight and the heavens have always fascinated me. There were just a few books about space in our country school library and even fewer science fiction books. I attacked the science fiction books that did exist in the paltry stacks and read them over and over again. Robert Heinlein’s “Between Planets” and Donald Wollheim’s “Five Against Venus” are the two that stick in my mind. I knew exactly where they were on the shelves and they were always there because I was the only one in school that read them. I probably read each of them at least once a month during the school year.

I managed to advance to junior high school. The best thing I found there was an extensive library that included dozens of science fiction books. I tried to read them all and kept a list as I read them. I read an average of three books a week in seventh grade. Needless to say, I didn’t get much studying done.

All this reading fed my natural interest in space. I spent a lot of time stargazing and dreaming. During the moon expeditions, I kept an eye on the television and followed the progress in the newspapers. There was no doubt in my mind that some day I would make a trip to the moon. The way technology was advancing, going from tiny satellites to a moon landing in less than twenty years, I could see that a trip to the moon for sightseeing purposes was certainly in my future. There was no limit to the possibilities and no limit to my enthusiasm for the trip. The idea never occurred to me that something might go wrong.

I received some of the first "Teacher in Space" literature back in the early 1980s that asked teachers to apply for a position on a space shuttle mission. It was a very exciting time for me. I toyed with the idea of sending in the application in much the same way that a person buys lottery tickets. Sure, it was a long shot, but somebody is going to go. Why couldn’t it be me? Well, actually my chances weren’t that good. For one thing, I had spent too much time reading science fiction and too little time studying. My academic credentials left much to be desired. I am intellectually fairly fit for earth duty, but I suspected that they normally launch only the brightest. I was also married and had small children at home. I anticipated that my wife and sons might not have enjoyed the experience as much as I would. Last, I eliminated myself from consideration by rationalizing that NASA probably wasn’t looking for a teacher whose specialty was farm business management. Considering NASA’s final choice, I’d say that my qualifications fell a bit wide of their mark.

All the same, when the Challenger crew met their end in 1986, I felt like I had had a close call. I knew in that moment that if someone had asked me to go, I would have been on that shuttle. My trust in technology and the people who make it work was unquestioningly strong until that moment when we all realized that sometimes things don’t work out. Sometimes people are not clever enough and the machinery fails.

My wife and I watched the video of the Challenger’s end a hundred times along with the rest of the ground-bound citizens who had no inkling that these kinds of things are not only likely to happen, but are inevitable. I remember lying in bed that night, restlessly waiting for sleep, feeling like a rug had been pulled out from under me. It was like losing a loved one on whom you have depended your entire life. You sit there in confusion and wait for them to come back to solve your problem, take the hurt away and restore your confidence that someone wiser and somehow more powerful is in control. I think that is what we ultimately want our technology to do for us.

We were again reminded of this when the crew of the space shuttle Columbia perished in their craft. The machine that had done everything required of it dozens of times somehow failed them. No doubt the technology was almost perfect in its design and construction, but still the forces of nature detected and took advantage of an unseen imperfection. Our sorrow for the families of the crew is genuine, as we know them to be decent people who deserved better. I also know that part of our sorrow in this ordeal is the loss of faith in the technology that we have come to believe will make life better. Technology comes with comforting promises, but eventually abandons us to face our humanity with our frail fellows.

In the unlikely event that NASA came to me tomorrow and asked me to go into space, what would I say? I’d go. I’d go because we have to keep trying and because we can’t sit safely at home waiting for good things to happen. I’d go because I think it is necessary to keep testing our nerve against nature and the tools we build to subdue it. To do otherwise is to sentence ourselves to an age of stagnation.

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