Ten years ago today, the world struggled to swallow its grief and say goodbye to seven astronauts who died in a horrible re-entry accident on board the space shuttle Columbia.
As a generation of rocket watchers, many of us were familiar and wary of the dangers of space travel. We remembered the catastrophes of Apollo I in 1967 and the Challenger explosion shortly after liftoff in 1986.
Each accident generated its own national sorrow, shaped in many ways by the leaders and circumstances of their times.
The Apollo fire on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral gave the space race pause at a time when its potential seemed limitless. The Challenger tragedy set off a mourning period in Ronald Reagan’s America – otherwise, one of the more optimistic periods in recent history.
The Columbia accident came like a terrible ending to a space shuttle program that the country no longer knew what to do with.
The missions that followed Columbia – ironically, the first shuttle to leave Earth’s atmosphere – felt like closing credits. The United States has yet to embark on a new program of manned space flight since the return of Atlantis in 2011.
The seven astronauts who died on board Columbia remind us of the dangers inherent with pointing rockets at the stars. But the hundreds of technological advances they and their peers helped engineer formed a legacy we too often take for granted.
That’s a shame – for them and for us – particularly in the shadow of an age that once seemed boundless.