The Columbia lifts off from Florida on January 16, 2003. Damage incurred during the ascent into space resulted in the shuttle's disintegration during its return on February 1.
At some point we will stop collectively mourning those who die in space. As horrible as it sounds, that will be an important day for our future in space.
Eight years ago today the space shuttle Columbia was lost with her crew during reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. Twenty-five years ago the space shuttle Challenger and its crew were lost during its launch into Earth orbit. As we look back on these anniversaries we remember the horror and national sense of grief. As a nation we rightfully continue to celebrate the crew of both spacecraft as national heroes.
The dangers of space travel remain daunting. From being blown out of Earth's deep gravity well on oversized roman candles, to spending weeks orbiting in the hostile, airless, radiation-drenched environment of Earth orbit, to the terrifying plunge at Mach 25 through the atmosphere; to be an astronaut demands the deepest kind of courage.
So why, as a nation, would we ever stop honoring the next generation of heroes who perish in space? The answer has everything to do with our real future in space. The future NASA and its private rocketeer partners are hoping to build. There is a transition waiting up ahead of us. If we successfully make it across, then we will truly have become a space-faring race. But it will come with a price.
Back in the 1980s NASA circulated a poster showing a shuttle rising off the launch pad on a pillar of flame. The title read, "Going to Work in Space." The idea was the shuttle was making access to space routine, just another day at the construction site. The truth, as we all discovered after the Challenger disaster, was that there was nothing routine about shuttle missions. Every launch carried relatively high probabilities of failure. We simply had not yet reached the point were going into space was just another day of work.
At some point, however, we may well be there. When that happens we are going to have to expect accidental deaths in space. Every dangerous profession holds this possibility. The construction of the Brooklyn Bridge — the technological marvel of its day in 1883 — took 27 lives, including it's designer John Roebling. Many more workers were seriously wounded, including Roebling's son Washington.
If we are to build an orbiting infrastructure, allowing Earth orbit to become an new domain of human enterprise, then there will have to be many space suited men and women involved. Some of those intrepid workers are bound to be claimed by the endeavor.
If we then are to use that orbiting infrastructure and take the next steps to claim other worlds in the solar system then, without a doubt, more lives will also be lost.
If we are to have a real future in space, each of these future accidents will have to shrink in scale. They can no longer be national horrors. They will have to shrink to the level of personal or community tragedy.
We have our toes in the water of this new world. Companies such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are beginning their push beyond the thin blue vail of the atmosphere. It will be a delicate march forward for these companies in their work with NASA. The grand push for space will meet the imperative for profit and run straight into the absolute demand for worker (i.e. astronaut) safety.
But sooner or later accidents will come. We will have to expect it. We must forever honor the heroism of our national astronauts who opened the doors of space for the entire human species. At some point in the future, however, astronauts will really be going to work in space. At that point everything will change. How we manage that change will say much about where we are in our progress towards the high frontier.