Ten years ago today, my friend Doug interrupted a lazy Saturday morning to call with an urgent question: Do you have the TV on?
That’s when I learned that the space shuttle Columbia should have landed in Florida but never would. I spent the rest of the day obsessively watching the news and thinking “I hate to see the good guys lose one.”
(I’m embarrassed that I’d forgotten about Columbia’s scheduled return before that call, but more so that I didn’t head into the newsroom to help in some way that Saturday.)
When Challenger disintegrated, I was all of 15 years old, and it shook me to see the people I had thought capable of engineering miracles stumble so badly. But it was comforting to think that NASA–that we–had learned and would never again think that “this worked every other time” outweighs “here’s why it might not.”
We didn’t learn enough, because we should have seen the tragedy of STS-107 coming. Only two launches after Challenger, Atlantis came home with hundreds of tiles scarred by insulation flying off after liftoff. Fourteen years later, that risk caught up with Columbia.
Columbia was the shuttle my 10-year-old self, entranced and exhilarated, woke up early to watch launch in 1981, and the one I looked forward to seeing in the Air and Space Museum someday. Instead, the shuttle and astronauts Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, Rick Husband, William McCool, and Ilan Ramon were gone.
When I made my long-awaited pilgrimage to the Kennedy Space Center two years ago, I was struck by the enormous STS-107 insignia hanging inside the Vehicle Assembly Building–a silent reminder to stay skeptical in the face of apparent success.
We honor the crew of Columbia as well as Challenger’s Greg Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee and Michael Smith–and before them, Apollo 1’s Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom and Ed White, Soyuz 1 cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov and Soyuz 11’s Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev and Vladislav Volkov–if we remember that lesson as we continue their worthy endeavor.