The President has basically canceled our next manned space craft and it’s missions, much to the dismay of most Americans and our elected representatives in Congress. It is hoped that the latter will restore the funding and set things right, as it is naive to think of losing such programs would be in any way beneficial. Too much technology comes from it to let it go.
It’s not just technology and science that dies, though, but dreams as well. When a great nation loses it’s dreams and strays from the path laid out by it’s ancestors, then it ceases to be great. It becomes just another place, a patch of dirt with meaningless monuments and unread, unknown history.
After the shuttle Columbia was lost in 2003, I wrote the following piece for our local newspaper. I still believe everything I wrote then. I found it this morning, and thought it might be appropriate to post again.
The milestones of human evolution, the progress of civilization and the ascent of modern technology have normally been measured by the benefits accrued to humanity and to our world. That is as it should be, and is a valid means to view the past. But often overlooked by us is the cost in human terms of each step, small or great, that accompanies the road to the future.
I was raised among the mountains of northern Utah, surrounded by both forest and desert, and taught the stories of the pioneers who settled the land. Often, my father would take me on trips to show me the remains of the Oregon trail, of South Pass, Promontory Point, Donner Pass and many other famous landmarks of our westward expansion. All the thrilling tales of those hardy pioneers were tempered, though, by the realization that every mile was marked by the grave of someone who fell by the way.
Those waving seas of Prairie grass were watered not only with the sweat of determined settlers, but by their tears as well. Lonely little mounds, some with rude-carved head plaques, but most not, marked some family’s loss. Husbands, wives and children died along the way to the promised land out west, and yet those same families persevered. They laid their loved ones to rest, said their last farewells and turned their faces westwards, determined to follow the trail to its end.
Those families kept faith with their fellow pioneers, and with their God, and kept going because they saw the inherent worth in their task. They believed in the value of their sacrifice and in the ultimate worth of their labors. Because of their determination, we inherited a great nation that stretches from one vast sea to another. They broke a path to the future that benefits us all today. Their tragedies were not forgotten, but were also not allowed to dissuade them from their dreams.
Space flight, for all its grand achievements, has born its share of tragedy, and the bright pathway to the stars has been christened with the blood of courageous men and women who believed that our future lay at the end of that path. Those who fell along the way, like those who returned, volunteered to blaze a trail to distant lands we cannot even dream of. They knew, as I do, that mankind’s future lies amongst the far-flung stars. We measure their loss with sorrow and tears, and yet they would be the first to say “Move on!” The goal they tried to reach is too great to not keep trying to reach it.
We are born with an innate sense of exploration. Like our ancestors, we have a need to know what lies beyond the next range of hills. But that desire comes with a price, and it is to our credit as a nation that we are never short of those who are willing to pay that bill. Brave men and women who will step forward and fill the place of those who fall along the way.
Great tragedies have great influences. They affect many people and can alter both lives and the course of history in ways that may not be discernible at the time. Such was Challenger and now, also, the loss of Columbia and her crew.
Challenger taught us to be wary of complacency and to set aside the petty politics that infected a once-proud NASA. Columbia now has shown us once again both our fallibility as humans and the perils we face when we venture forth from home. Our duty is to grieve for our honored dead, remember their lives and sacrifice and then turn our faces toward the stars to continue the journey that they could not complete. Someday we shall look back upon that path and know that their faith in us was not misplaced. To do any less would be unbecoming to our nature, and stand in contrast to everything we value as Americans.