In the case of Challenger, we thank God that we didn’t have anything to do with the decision to launch when it was cold. In the case of Columbia, we thank the heavens above that we didn’t have anything to do with the decision to ignore a foam strike. Then, we politely point our fingers at the managers and engineers who did in judgment.
My point here is that there needs to be a balance in all this. Either we have the stomach to send humans into space, or we don’t. Absolutely, we should do everything possible not to make poor engineering decisions that risk life. But we’ve taken it too far.
The organization that sent men to the moon fifty years ago is paralyzed with fear that something bad might happen again—and fear inspires no one. In the end, an infatuation with the failures of our past does little to lead us into a bright future.
An Amazing Tribute
Astronaut Butch Wilmore spoke at the unveiling of the Columbia exhibit and gave the perfect speech. He told a story about each of the seven crew who never made it home that day. Each story felt personal and warm.
“The first thing that pops into my mind when I think about the STS-107 crew,” Butch said, “is that they laughed all the time.”
“They all enjoyed life—and they all knew the risks.”
Butch paused for a movement and made strong eye contact with the audience before continuing in a slow, methodical voice.
“We all know the risks. But we chose to do it anyway.”
Butch got emotional as he wrapped things up:
“The thing that bothers me the most is that the crew onboard Columbia had stories to tell that they never got a chance to tell.”
Butch paid tribute to the lost crew in a magical way on that day that honored them individually. That’s the way I long to be remembered. Nothing more. Nothing less.
A Real Story
Several years ago, I rode a motorcycle from Alabama to Alaska and back with my best friend, Mike. Before I left, I told my wife, Sue, that if something bad happened to me (and a motorist was at fault), I didn’t want her to go after the driver.
“Sue, I understand there are risks. But I want to do it anyway.”
If I had died in a motorcycle crash on the ride to Alaska, I wouldn’t have wanted my family and friends to make it their life’s calling to destroy the driver who made a mistake and killed me.
Instead, I would want them to celebrate my life and focus on the fact that I was living a dream by doing it. I imagine the crews on Challenger and Columbia left this Earth living a dream, too.
And let’s not forget that our country had 133 successful Shuttle launches and landings. I’ll unpack that in a future article. In the end, every astronaut who risked it all should be celebrated as an adventurer and hero—whether they died doing it or not.