Sacrifice is the cost of progress

I was listening to the radio on Saturday morning, and as I had just about arrived at my destination, the 9 a.m. news announced that the space shuttle Columbia would be landing in a few minutes.Given the routine of space travel, I’m pretty sure they don’t turn it on in the classrooms like they did when I was a kid (if you had a television there at all). So I picked up my cell phone, and called home, figuring that my six-year-old would be thrilled to watch the landing. When my wife answered, I told her to turn the television to CNN, hanging up just as I parked, and vaguely heard mention that Mission Control in Houston had lost contact with the shuttle.

Being a child of the Space Age, I assumed that this was the blackout period affecting every craft entering the atmosphere, as it is surrounded by an ionization field accompanying the heat of reentry. It was a period that went unnaturally long during the descent of Apollo XIII, and is dramatized quite effectively in the Ron Howard movie of the same name. I thought little of it as I went to my meeting.

Fortunately, my wife discerned rather quickly that this was no usual period of blackout, and spared six-year-old Jimmy (Patrick, at two, doesn’t understand) the grim realization that seven brave men and women, in the eloquent words of the President, “did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home.”

Because of my meeting, I heard the news rather late. Like most Americans, I briefly offered a prayer, and found myself in one of those horrible moments, the kind you always remember. March 1981: a junior in high school, the day Reagan was shot. January 1986: a senior at Hampden-Sydney, in the college library, when a sophomore came in and announced that Challenger had exploded seconds after lift-off. 11 September 2001: in my office, when my wife called to tell me that a plane had just flown into the World Trade Center; and a few moments later, looking west out my office window, when I felt the sickening thump that I was later to learn was a plane crashing into the Pentagon, killing among too many others the wife of a college classmate.

I was reminded of something my late grandfather said to me, 16 months ago, when we finally spoke on the evening of 11 September 2001, to the effect that “I’ve already gone through this stuff once before.” Well, Okay; though a man not given to frequent use of expletives, he didn’t say “stuff.”

Indeed, we have. And the sad reality is that we will have to go through it again.

While not old enough to remember the Mercury or Gemini programs, I was nearly six when Apollo XI was launched; three days and a few hours later I stayed up late to watch the first time that a human being set foot on another heavenly body. Neil Armstrong; Buzz Aldrin; John Glenn; Alan Shepard; Scott Carpenter the men with the not-yet-popularized “right stuff” were my heroes. The glass cover over the ceiling light in my childhood bedroom was painted with a space program theme, including a Gemini capsule. National Geographic had a feature article on every Apollo mission; I had every one of them.

But those early years in northern Indiana didn’t allow me to revel merely in the glories of the space program. We lived just west of the since-closed Grissom Air Force Base, named after favorite son Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, the second American in space. He was burned to death in a launch pad fire in Apollo I also occurring this time of year.

I was enough of a space “junkie” that, like many who visit the nation’s capital, the first place I wanted to go was the National Air and Space Museum. I wanted to touch that piece of the Moon, and stood in line (they were longer, 25 years ago, just after the museum opened) to do so.When my stepdaughter did a preschool workpaper on “things you can touch,” and the teacher marked it wrong when she circled the Moon, I took her to the museum, so she could “touch the Moon.” When, a few years later, Alan Shepard did a book tour, I stood in line with my family for hours, and got the book autographed for her. But I confess: I was more thrilled than she to shake hands with the first American in space, and one of only 12 men to set foot upon the Moon.

The names are more anonymous these days, and rightly so. Space travel has become somewhat routine, and that is a good thing. It happened sometime when I was in college, when I didn’t watch a great deal of television. I noticed one weekend during my junior year, probably in late 1984, when my girlfriend took me home with her to visit with her parents in Catharpin. Knowing of the mission, I suggested we watch the lift-off (or landing; I can’t remember which). It was then that I found out that the broadcast networks weren’t covering it live. Only CNN carried it, and then, only briefly. And I remember thinking that this routine was a good thing; that what had been awe-inspiring had become, in just 15 years, just another workhorse mission for the “Space Truck.”

The Challenger disaster shook us from this complacency, for a time, reminding us of the price inevitably paid by pioneers. Until that awful January morning in 1986, only three Americans had perished in the cause of space exploration the Russians had lost two or three in a reentry accident while most missions had been magnificent successes. Even the near-disaster of Apollo XIII didn’t cost a single life, though the mission itself was scrubbed.

The fate of Columbia and her crew once again shakes us from this complacency, reminding us that exploration into the vast frontier of space will, like all exploration, bear a cost in blood. Sadly, the five men and two women who perished on Saturday will not be the last to give their lives in the cause of exploration. We must steel ourselves to this fact. The missions and fact of space travel may become routine; the dangers of space travel probably never will.

But it remains for those of us left behind to carry on their legacy, and to recommit ourselves to the cause for which they gave their lives: the expansion of human knowledge. For all of the men and women who venture forth into the void of space “spend themselves in a worthy cause.” They are “in the arena,” and it is they “who, at the best, know in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, at least fail while daring greatly.”

And as Theodore Roosevelt continued to observe, “Their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

An attorney, Young lives with his wife and their two sons in Montclair.

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