The crew of Challenger: Back Row, L-R: Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik. Front Row, L-R: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald Mcnair.
The crew of Columbia: Back Row, L-R: David Brown, Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson, Ilan Ramon. Front Row, L-R: Rick Husband, Kalpana Chawla, William McCool
Today marks a somber day (and the conclusion of a dark week) for NASA. It was exactly 8 years ago today that the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry, killing all 7 astronauts aboard. On Friday, the nation commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, which killed 7 astronauts, including teacher in space winner Christa McAuliffe. Just a day before that, January 27 marked the 44th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, which killed all three astronauts aboard. Naturally, with anniversaries all of these disasters coming in such quick succession, it is to be expected that the nation will focus on how these brave 17 explorers died. However. What is forgotten in all of this remembrance is what the astronauts stood for: the continuation of man's grand quest to explore.
Ever since the dawning of man, we have been explorers. Millions and millions of years ago, perhaps as the light we see from the Great Andromeda Galaxy tonight was leaving home, our distant ancestors were already well on their road to discovery. The first life evolved on Earth about 3.7 billion years ago, undergoing an explosion of biodiversity around 600 million years ago. The Cambrian Explosion of multicellular organisms would eventually lead to mammals, primates, and then us.
Evolving from primates, our earliest ancestors inhabited the trees of central Africa. Perhaps our evolutionary past is the reason for the common fears and dreams of falling that so permeate our species, regardless of culture, religion, or race. However, at a time long before recorded history, our distant ancestors, specifically, one bold leader, persuaded his band of hominids to follow him down, out of the trees and onto the land in a search for a better existence, never mind the relative safety of the heights that were free from lions, tigers, and other animals far stronger than we humans ever were.
Early human migration: the first quest for our species.
In time, starting from our nursery that was the center of the African continent, we moved out to colonize the world. What a grand adventure this must have been! However, primitive man's wanderings were, without doubt, not without cost. Facing all the perils of nature with little technology and experience at this new way of living, many of our ancestors undoubtedly died from starvation, exposure, animal attack, disease, and myriad of untold reasons unimaginable to us today. Did these tragedies stop the human enterprise of exploration? Of course not. Where do you live? If you answered anywhere but Africa, you are living proof of man's age-old desire to explore.
As the human enterprise went along, not only did the desire to explore continue, but the drive to invent also took root. With the new inventions brought upon by technology, man's ability to explore new frontiers expanded dramatically. Thanks to the ship, man could now cross the sea, colonizing island lands, most notably Australia. However, with the collapse of the Classical civilization, the Western world entered a 1,000 year Dark Age, during which little in the way of science and technology was accomplished. However, starting in the late 1300s, the West would reawaken and, once again, continue the quest for invention and discovery.Ferdinand Magellan: the 1500s equivalent of an astronaut.
When the Byzantine Empire collapsed in 1453, rich Europeans had to discover a new route to the Orient, thus commenced the age of exploration. In 1492, in a seemingly ludicrous attempt to reach the far East y sailing West, Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, thus beginning a rush of explorers. In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan set out to do the impossible: circumnavigate the globe. Setting out from Seville, Spain with 5 ships and 234 men under his command, Magellan sailed out into the unknown. Fighting storms, illness, and hostile native peoples on the islands were they landed for 3 years, the remnants of Magellan's crew (Magellan himself was killed in a battle with natives in the Philippines) finally returned home in 1522. Only 1 ship and 18 men completed the journey.
While Magellan's most paramount goal, circumnavigating the globe, was accomplished, there was a great cost in terms of human and material loss. However, rather tan make contemporary explorers question the worth of such travels, Magellan only inspired further voyages of discovery. At this time of rapidly advancing technology and unbridled optimism, there seemed nothing that humans were incapable of accomplishing. Yes, there were setbacks, French explorer LaSalle was lost after a navigational error took him to the Texas coast instead of New Orleans, John Cabot, originally of Italy, vanished with his 5 ships on an expedition to North America, and the entire British colony of Roanoke disappeared without a trace, but none of these disasters halted the drive to explore for very long. Humans are resilient, learn from mistakes, and then press on with whatever they endeavor to do. Once the Americas were colonized, the focus shifted to the Far East and the “dark” continent of Africa, our birthplace. We humans were returning home and didn't even realize it.
From the Renaissance until the start of the 20th century, humans trekked all over the Earth by land, sea, and eventually air. When the South Pole was finally reached in 1911, many were ready to declare that there was nothing left to explore. However, these suggestions were in error.
An early Chinese rocket, the ancestor of our modern space rocket.
A German V-2 rocket.
During the 1940s, rockets would return to their ancient use as weapons of war. German rocketry, far ahead of any other nation's efforts, would develop, test, and successfully terrorize England with its V-series rockets. Although highly inaccurate, the rockets did get off the ground with great reliability and could travel vast distances that were previously unimaginable. After the war, the victorious allied governments raced to capture both German know-how and the scientists themselves. Of all the competing powers, America came out the big winner, getting a hold of not just the technology, but the men behind it. Among the captured German scientists was Werner von Braun, the driving force behind German rocketry who would go on to play a major role in helping America win the space race.
Sputnik 1: the first artificial satellite.
In the years after WWII, the relationship between America and the Soviet Union cooled until it reached a state of “Cold War.” Again, rockets would be employed for military purposes, namely delivering nuclear warheads vast distances without the risk of human life on the attacker's end. During the 1950s, both USA and USSR would build bigger and bigger rockets capable of delivering ever larger bombs greater distances. In 1957, the Russians surpassed the Americans when they launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit, thus creating the possibility of raining death from above onto any location in the world. In 1961, the Russians would launch Yuri Gagarin into space and President Kennedy would lay down the gauntlet to the Russians when he declared that Americans would land on the Moon by the end of the decade.
The culmination of the space race: Apollo 11 blasts off for the Moon.
Columbia lifts off on the STS-1 mission.
On January 16, 2003, the oldest space shuttle in the fleet, Columbia, lifted of for an extended mission of experiments in space. At the time of launch, video footage revealed that a piece of thermal insulation had broken off the shuttle's main fuel tank and struck the left wing of the orbiter. At the time, engineers pressed NASA management for independent and astronaut inspection of the damage. All requests were denied, the belief being that once in orbit, nothing could have been done. As the shuttle completed its mission and prepared for re-entry on February 1, nothing seemed amiss until reports of debris being shed by the shuttle were reported by people out to watch the reentry. The unusual spectacle then turned to one of horror as Columbia itself was seen to disintegrate. Subsequent investigation revealed that the engineers had been right in their concerns over the wing damage, which had apparently dislodged the thermal protective tiles that keep the shuttle's metal from melting when encountering the high heat of reentry. Result: superheated air entered the hole and melted the shuttle's wing, causing Columbia to spin out of control and disintegrate.
As with the Challenger disaster, the shuttles were grounded, this time for 3 years. When Discovery launched on its second return to orbit mission (Discovery was first in space after Challenger), foam was again shed from the external fuel tank. Although it missed Discovery, concerns over the integrity of the foam caused NASA to ground the shuttles yet again. At the same time, it had been nearly a quarter of a century since the shuttles first started flying into space, there was no denying that they were getting old. However, in a memorial speech for the Columbia crew, President George W. Bush stated that “the cause in which they died will continue . . . our journey into space will go on.” In 2004, President Bush announced the Constellation Program, which provided a new focus for American space exploration in that its mission was to return Americans to the Moon. With the advent of Constellation (itself now in limbo), the shuttle era was now nearing its end.
So, in 2011 as we were forced to take a look back at the tragedies that have befallen America's space program, instead of focusing on how the astronauts died, we should all focus on how they lived and what they stood for: man's undying quest to discover new worlds. For our entire history as a species, we have been explorers with ever-changing frontiers. Millions of years ago, coming down from the trees and setting foot on the land was like setting foot on a new world. Today, we are literally journeying to new worlds, the uncharted regions of space. Throughout history, many people have died in the quest to discover new places, but did that stop us? Of course not, look at where we have come as a species: down from the trees, out of Africa, all over the planet, and now to space itself. Exploration will always be a dangerous endeavor, there is no escaping this fact, but we owe it to all of those bold explorers, those who succeeded and those who failed, who came before us and dared to go where no one had gone before and today, that means continuing our journey to the stars.