February 12, 2003

Shuttle Down

Call it the Day of Debris. On the morning of Feb. 1, some friends and I gathered with fellow thrill-seeking voyeurs to watch UL history crumble right before our dusty eyes. The sensory experience was certainly no disappointment: the early-morning chill, the camaraderie of the crowd, the abundance of cameras of all kinds, the doughnuts and the overall feeling that Lafayette had yet another reason to celebrate something.

Several violent pops grabbed our collective attention—along with, no doubt, the attention of most of St. John’s cemetery—and the old dorms went down in a fantastic heap of engineering. The ensuing applause struck me as a bit odd, like cheering the sermon at a funeral, but the sound of my own hands clapping drowned out that thought soon enough.

Afterward, my friend and I sat idling in the parking lot, watching as my hood gathered McCullough dust for almost 20 minutes. Long having memorized the license plate of the truck in front of us, I reflected upon an irony of humanity; in order to watch two seconds of destruction, people were willing to endure nearly half an hour of waiting.

Though the implosion was an unusual and memorable event, another incident of destruction would instantaneously knock it off the front page: the space shuttle Columbia’s tragic explosion during its attempted landing.

For the first time ever, a space shuttle had blown apart while returning to terra firma. Debris from the fatal cloud centered primarily on a strip of woodland in northeast Texas, although traces of the storied spacecraft were found as far east as central Louisiana.

Lost among the spacecraft were its seven crew members. A mix of veteran and rookie astronauts from across the globe, the latest Columbia crew was among the most diverse ever assembled for an American mission. Those who had spent the past few days literally reaching for the stars included Michael P. Anderson, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Rick Husband, William McCool, Kalpana Chawla and Ilan Ramon.

Chawla and Ramon had become the first space travelers from their native countries (India and Israel, respectively); Husband, Chawla and Anderson had prior space experience while Brown, Clark, McCool and Ramon were on their first trip. They, along with the rest of NASA, represent years of military and civilian toil necessary for such an undertaking.

The incident brought to life the inherent dangers of what has become routine protocol for NASA; while space shuttle technology has been vastly improved since its introduction in 1981, no advancement will ever buck the laws of physics. For this reason, the need for a well-trained and thorough safety team cannot be overstressed. Unfortunately, funding for such a team—and NASA as a whole—has dropped drastically and inexplicably over the past decade.

Like most meaningful (and maligned) programs, NASA serves a vital purpose; having long evolved from its origins as a Cold War tool, the space program serves as a reminder that hope will always exist even in the most troubling times. Beyond the philosophy of it, space travel has allowed unprecedented contact with world, via satellites, and has led to such innovations as the Hubble Space Telescope and an international space station. And, perhaps most importantly, Tang.

The terrifying instant of Columbia’s explosion has brought with it a long-term sinking of the American heart. But just as we are willing to invest a whole morning for two seconds of implosion, we will not let an instant of tragedy derail decades of progress. These brave astronauts died in the name of discovery, and they would most certainly want us to keep discovering into the future.

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