I'm a science geek. I've always been a science geek, and the heroes of my childhood are the women of NASA's astronaut program. My parents kept me home from school for a partial day so that I could watch the first launch
of Columbia back in 1981. My parents had posters from the moon landings, a moon globe... I had two little die-cast shuttles, I remember that one of them had openable payload bay doors. I had the Lego Moon Lander, and a bunch of the Lego space sets... the little red Lego people were pilots and drivers, the white Lego people were mission specialists, and the yellow Lego people were mission commanders. I had a few whole space programs developed to explore various places in the house. And yes, I was also a Star Wars and Star Trek geek, but that's a whole 'nother topic.
Young people today (and some older ones, probably) don't realize what the space shuttle program meant to folks like me. The manned space program had pretty much stagnated since 1971, starved for funding and recognition. Columbia was a gleaming symbol of our hope for ourselves and our world. It was step along the way to our collective brighter future. It meant a return to the path of innovation and discovery and exploration which had previously slipped into disrepair and drifted from the willful focus of the American people, and our government, since the moon landing goal had been reached.
For many in this modern world, scientific discovery is our quest, our challenge, the highest calling we can imagine. Space is the greatest unknown that captures our imagination, because while medicine and sub-atomic physics are incredible, no one can travel
those frontiers, we can only observe them. Those who choose to risk their lives toward this purpose have our utmost respect and thanks, and some envy... their dedication and daring and qualification for such elite jobs sanctifies them on some level deep in our psyche. If scientific endeavor is our faith, then researchers, scientists and astronauts are our shamans, our priests, our wisewomen, our saints... and some become our martyrs.
For women and girls, the fact that the shuttle program had the United States' first group of female astronauts in training to reach for the heavens was such a significant milestone... the first woman to undergo the same testing as the Mercury astronauts, Jerrie Cobb
, passed with flying colors back around 1960, but the program was not opened to women until 1978.
I was born in 1973, and yet I remember clearly when the first women were accepted into the program
. I have vivid memories of my childhood back to younger than age two, in case you're disbelieving me at this point...
If you are unfamiliar with the progression that women have made, check out this page
and this page
(there's another mirror with similar content here
). The profile stories are very inspiring.
There for a while, I followed every launch, every mission payload, every astronaut's life story. I had photos of the first women to complete the astronaut program hanging on the wall of my room, encouraging me to reach for my own type of excellence, whatever it might turn out to be.
Part of the reason that the loss of Challenger was so hard on me was that it was the ship that carried Sally Ride into space for the first time
. The loss of Columbia, the ship that revitalized our space program, that hosted Peterson and Musgrave's first spacewalks
... it has hit me hard, especially during a time when I have been trying to accomplish a lot of lofty goals with little resources at my workplace.
It is a tragedy to lose seven of the world's best and brightest, and my heart goes out to their families and loved ones, as well as the large behind-the-scenes teams on the ground who are grieving. It is a tragedy that some of the science experiments on board Columbia cannot be completed. It is a tragedy that the delay caused by grounding the remaining three shuttles (Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour) will further impact the already-stressed International Space Station program.
But more than that, it is a tragedy that it takes a disaster to bring our space program to nationwide attention.
It is a cold fear wrapped around my heart that Congress may try to further cut funding to the space program. Beyond the technical advances of both manned and unmanned space flight, our space program is a symbol of hope for the future and a celebration of our country. I'll be writing my representatives in Washington, D.C., to that effect, and I urge you to do the same.
Columbia flew its first mission in 1981, and though it's been overhauled, it's basically reconditioned 1970's technology. We owe ourselves more than that. We owe our dreams more than that. And we owe the smart, hard-working folks at NASA more than that.This article
says that it costs $435 million for each shuttle flight, and that there are 1.2 million separate procedures required to prepare a shuttle for launch. What we are attempting with the space program has a huge
scope, and the shuttle program was supposed to be merely a step, not the final effort.
Feel free to use these icons wherever you like.
I am so thankful to have lived now, when we have a space program. I am so thankful to have had real live heroes when I was a child. What heroes will today's children look to for inspiration in the coming decades?
Without our dreams, without our heroes, without our inspirations, will we fail to solve the more earthbound problems facing our world, which are no less important than reaching for the stars? Hunger, violence, intolerance, inequality of opportunity and education... these are problems with solutions, but only if we have the spirit, the intellect, and the intestinal fortitude to deal with them.