By Jeff Mullin, columnist
Enid News & Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
They were on their way home, eager to once again feel the warm sun on their faces and to embrace their loved ones.
They had been living surrounded by the cold vacuum of space for 16 days, viewing the warm, wet earth from afar.
They were seven — five men and two women, one black, one Indian and one Israeli. They were pilots and scientists, with two doctors in the mix.
They came from different places, from varied backgrounds, but all had realized their dreams of flying into space.
They had spent the previous two weeks-plus trying to expand human understanding of living and working in space.
They were just 16 minutes from their scheduled landing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a craft not so much flying as falling.
They were just 16 minutes from home.
Temperature gauges began to show anomalies, causing concern to those on the ground.
Then instruments showed a loss of tire pressure on their craft’s port side. Charlie Hobaugh was serving as capsule communicator, a title dating back from the days of the Mercury program.
Hobaugh called the crew, asking for a communications check.
He called to them once, twice, six times. There was no answer. There would be no answer.
The men and women who flew into space aboard the craft designated STS-107, the space shuttle Columbia, died just before 8 a.m. central standard time on Feb. 1, 2003, when the venerable orbiter broke up, doomed by a wing surface damaged when it was struck by a piece of thermal insulator shortly after launch.
The world watched in horror as flaming pieces of Columbia streaked earthward high over north Texas that cold winter morning.
The nation lost seven heroes a decade ago today, but the family members of Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Ilan Ramon, Mike Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown and Laurel Clark lost much more.
Two, Husband and Anderson, spent time in Enid, going through pilot training at Vance Air Force Base. But in truth, they belonged to us all.
I wonder what they would make of America’s space program today. Due to a lack of political will, coupled with a lack of vision, the U.S. manned space program is in stasis, with America reduced to paying Russia to transport our astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
The Columbia disaster, in fact, hastened the end of the shuttle program, as decreed in January 2004 by President George W. Bush when he announced a “new vision,” for America’s manned space program.
“The legacy of Columbia must carry on,” said Bush in that 2004 speech, quoting a family member of a Columbia astronaut, “for the benefit of your children and ours. The Columbia’s crew did not turn away from the challenge, and neither will we.”
Perhaps we have not turned away from the challenge of manned space exploration, but we have pushed it down the road. President Obama’s vision does not match that of President Bush. Bush wanted America to return to the moon as early as 2015, and no later than 2020.
Obama wants to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 and to Mars by the mid-2030s.
Meanwhile, Russia and China have the capacity to send human beings into space, while America does not.
One can’t help but wonder if the men and women of Columbia would be disappointed that the momentum the U.S. manned space program built beginning in the early 1960s has now ground to a halt, hamstrung in part by soaring budget woes.
Perhaps it is time for government to stand aside and let private enterprise take over in the exploration of space, and not just in the form of high-dollar, highly publicized efforts like Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space tourism enterprise.
Three firms, Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp., are working to develop and launch commercially built human-rated spacecraft into low Earth orbit, perhaps by as early as 2015.
It is the nature of humankind to explore, to reach out, to ask what is over the next hill, to not be satisfied with what we know today, but instead to consider the possibilities of what we may discover tomorrow.
Politics and budget woes have put that quest on the back burner, as far as American manned spaceflight is concerned, but we will again leave this blue, wet planet one day, and that next generation of space explorers will stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before.
That is the legacy of the crew of Columbia: delayed, but in the end, not deferred.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at email@example.com.