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Bird Down

 

(Note: This commentary was written February 2, 2003, the day after the Columbia space shuttle disaster. I normally do not post to my own site commentary pieces I have written for the good folks at Clear Channel, but then the Columbia disaster had a more immediate effect upon me than most newsworthy or political events that occur during a given week. In posting the piece to my own site, I am taking the opportunity to expand my comments in a way I would not have in a commentary for the Clear Channel release due to space restrictions. The folks at Clear Channel asked me to do a weekly commentary; they did not agree to a short novel each week. For those of you who are intrigued by the opening lines of this commentary as lifted from Ray Bradbury story, King Of The Gray Spaces, I recommend you search out the story at your public library. It's a good story. The expanded commentary is below.)

"We were just a lot of kids, with cut fingers, lumpy heads and whining tenor voices. We liked our game of mibs as well as the next rumple-hair; but we liked the rockets more!

"I quit breathing. I didn't suck another breath until the ship was out on the field, dragged there by chugging tractors, and followed by a lot of little bug like mechanics in asbestos suits and fireproof visors. Every line was like perfect steel muscles sleeping there, ready to wake up with a roar, jump up and hit its silly head against the milky way's ceiling, and make the stars fall down like frightened confetti. You felt you could do that, kick the universe right in the belly and tell it to get out of the way.

"It was a hundred years of dreaming all sorted out and chosen and put together to make the hardest, prettiest, swiftest dream of all. It got me in the stomach, too...it got a steel grip there that made me sick with longing and envy, and when the pilots strolled onto the field, my feet walked with them..."

The above lines from the story King Of The Gray Spaces by Ray Bradbury as adapted for the comic book Weird Fantasy issue 19, an EC comic published in 1953.

I was always a sci-fi nut. I was in Junior High when a friend suggested I should read some of the cool science fiction books available from the school library, so I checked out Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein and never looked back. Not long afterward I joined the Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club and have been a member in more or less good standing since. My introductory selections included The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov and The Haunted Stars by Edmond Hamilton. I became a big fan of Asimov, purchasing and reading most of his science fiction writings and I've read Hamilton's The Haunted Stars half a dozen times over the past quarter century.

I was a big fan of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone and I was there when the star ship Enterprise began weekly voyages on NBC Television. I still rate Where No Man Has Gone Before one of the best science fiction teleplays ever broadcast over network TV.

I had not yet given away my television set when, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong sent a message from the moon, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." It was a watershed event in human history. There had never been anything like it before and it could never happen again. For the first time man made a footprint on another world. Humankind had stepped out of the womb of Earth.

Saturday morning, February 1, I was listening to the radio while working on content for the Tandra web site when the twenty minute before the hour news update announced briefly that there had been no contact with the Columbia Space shuttle coming down from orbit over the past twenty minutes. Live coverage of developments would begin immediately. It did not require the intelligence of a rocket scientist to know there was a serious problem with the space shuttle, deadly serious.

NASA can experience broken communication with a crew in orbit for a few seconds or for a couple of minutes, but loss of contact extending twenty minutes and counting during reentry to touchdown pretty much means there is no longer a shuttle craft to contact.

Subsequent news reports confirmed the worst possible scenario. Something had gone terribly wrong over Texas and the Columbia had broken up and fallen to earth in shattered pieces. There was no possibility of survivors.

Like many people around the world, I listened to the news reports for the remainder of the day. I heard NASA spokespersons remind listeners that space exploration is dangerous work. It is to be expected that things will sometimes go wrong, on occasion they will go very wrong with disastrous consequences. Possibly it is because NASA has experienced relatively few spectacular disasters that Americans have allowed themselves to become complacent over space exploration, to believe a trip into space has become no more risky than a quick trip to the local Seven-Eleven to pick up a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread. Americans appear to have overlooked the obvious reason the space program has maintained an almost unbelievable safety record is due to the space agency's extensive planning and a meticulous concern with detail. Critics complain NASA has done its job too well, that space exploration has been allowed to become routine and, in consequence, Americans have become bored with the conquest of space. Let me suggest that, if Americans have become bored with the venture into space, the fault does not lie with the Space Administration. The fault is with the lack of imagination and the mundane concerns of a large portion of the American public.

In any event, if danger and death are required by Americans to rekindle their in the space program, as of February 1, 2003, there is no longer reason for complaint!

Immediately it became known the Columbia had broken apart during reentry, the Nervous Nellies and Whining Willies came crawling out of the woodwork to insist the Columbia disaster was more proof, as if more proof were needed, that the space program is far too expensive and way too dangerous. Space exploration should be terminated forthwith and the money used to serve urgent needs on Earth such as providing sanitary needles for drug addicts and rehabilitating convicted pedophiles.

Without question, the most absurd pronouncement I heard came from a self styled Baptist minister in Texas who insisted the Columbia tragedy is a sign from god telling us to slow down in space exploration and return to church. If the god this minister claims to serve is so fragile that exploration of space is a threat to his ego, then this is a god that is of no consequence and deserves to be abandoned. Any God worthy of consideration would look with pride upon the men and women who sustain the space program and who willingly risk their lives to increase our knowledge and to make better the lives of every person on the face of this planet.

Fortunately, those who wish to use the Columbia disaster as an excuse to drag our adventure in space to a halt seem to be in the minority. Indications are official policy is to immediately determine what went wrong, fix it, and get on with the business of exploring space, first near space and then the planets. It is somewhat worrisome how quickly there are calls to again scale back operation of the orbiting Space Station, but design flaws in our space craft must of necessity be attended to. Our astronaut family are a people characterized by their courage. They are not suicidal.

We, the race of humankind, have reached a point in our history at which moving into space is our only hope of a better life for ourselves and for our children. Whatever your opinions about climate change and overpopulation, the inescapable fact is that Earth is a finite sphere with finite materials of which to convert into goods and products we may use to maintain an acceptable level of creature comfort. Now is the time of our window of opportunity. We may never have another.

Should we be so foolish as to follow the admonition of the Texas minister, we will look forward to a future in which our descendants will huddle disease ridden in shallow caves peering out in terror at dark dangers both real and imagined with their only companions the brothers in spirit of the cautionary Texas minister.

The choice for the future of humankind is quite simple. The incontestable fact of the universe is that our Earth will not last forever and the ideal conditions we now enjoy have an even shorter time line. We either move into space and establish ourselves there, or we face eventual extinction.

We have no other practical option.

-hanther