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Shuttle Disaster

With them, we soared to heights unimagined

By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2003


Lt. Col. Michael Anderson's father said it. The mother of Kalpana Chawla did, too.

They told their children to chase their dreams, to ignore the limits the world might seek to impose, to fly in the most profound sense.

Sure enough, Anderson became one of America's handful of black astronauts. He and Chawla ended up among the seven Columbia astronauts who were killed Saturday. Chawla came from India, where the birth of a boy is a far more celebrated event than the birth of a girl.

Part of the space program's glory is in how much the earthbound rest of us identify with it. We identify with the astronauts because they succeed in ways the rest of us only dream about. For some, like Anderson and Chawla, the road was probably harder. Yet they surpassed the world's expectations. They escaped the ropes that would have held them down.

The space program has always been about this -- reaching, and reaching again, and reaching further still. Since Saturday, there has been talk that maybe the shuttle program ought to be scrapped. I can't imagine anybody means it. This must be pain talking.

The Kennedy Space Center is a noble landmark in contrast to Orlando's gargantuan amusements. It is the one feature of this state that doesn't make the rest of the country giggle. The space center is also a serious contributor to Florida's economy. But these are not reasons why we should resume, and as soon as we can, the shuttle flights.

We should get back up into the air because that's where we belong.

Nothing in America makes us feel as good, as proud, as the space program. And no one, no sports figure, no movie star, garners our admiration like the astronauts, even though we don't know much about them individually until, like now, they die.

We watch the shuttle lift off on TV or see it streak across the Florida sky and get an almost automatic lump in the throat. Each time it flies, some feat of unimaginable complexity is achieved. Each time it flies, the astronauts break those bonds again. The best of American brains and grit goes into orbit.

Nothing tells the rest of the world about America better than the space program. For once we are not regarded as bullies, using our muscle to hoard oil or to keep the right local thug in power. The rest of the world sees the good that America can do.

And another boundary is broken, the one between nations. Space travel is the most human of journeys. People in other countries identify as much with it as Americans do. It's not just our journey. It's the world's journey.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be one of those astronauts. Looking back down at tiny Earth, hanging in vast, inexplicable space, your perspective would be upended.

In that moment, all rational explanations for why life exists would sputter. The most scientific mind would collide directly with the idea of God. How ironic. You could become very religious by traveling this most scientific road, or at least very humble.

This disaster has a similar effect. We are reminded that even our best scientific minds can miscalculate and that accidents are inevitable. The astronauts knew this. They certainly had made their peace with it.

Four days have passed. We should be getting used to this but aren't. It hurts to think of seven people at the peak of their lives being blown out of the sky only 15 minutes from landing.

They were seven of us -- sons and daughters, moms and dads, soldiers, churchgoers, doctors, hikers and bikers and chess players. We were flying by proxy. Our unarticulated dreams went with them.

We need so much to soar again.

-- Mary Jo Melone can be reached at mjmelone@sptimes.com or 226-3402.

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