The Best Among UsApril 6, 2003
Since the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia, two questions have been repeated more than any others relating to the space program. What motivates the men and women of NASA? And given such tragic losses as those experienced on Feb. 1, should the effort be continued?
The majority of the work done in connection with space exploration is not nearly so dramatic as what the actual astronauts do. For every man and woman in that exclusive uniform, there are thousands of scientists, researchers and technicians providing the necessary support and infrastructure. (In Waco, students and faculty at Baylor and Texas State Technical College work together within a partnership called the Center for Astrophysics, Space Physics and Engineering Research in just such an endeavor.) These individuals spend painstaking hours creating computer programs, constructing experiments and evaluating data. Often this research leads to unmanned missions such as Sojourner or Cassini-Huygens that expand our knowledge of the universe without human risk. Isn't this enough? The only insight I can provide into this question is uniquely my own, stemming from years of interest in the space program and my involvement over the past two decades in space research.
Scientists are insatiably curious; to gather data, we conduct experiments. We look through telescopes at distant stars and galaxies. We send unmanned probes to comets and robotic rovers to planets, and these devices send back limited numbers of pictures and bits of information. Why isn't this enough?
At least a partial answer can be found in three film clips, played and replayed during the days following the losses of Apollo I, Challenger and now Columbia. The three video clips are the same -- astronauts in full gear, walking down three ramps, headed into three separate spacecraft. Their faces aglow with anticipation, they look remarkably childlike as they pass the camera.
These men and women were on their way to the same type of adventure that has motivated explorers throughout history. People seeking a better understanding of our world sailed into unknown waters without an inkling of the dangers awaiting them over the horizon. They crossed continents burying their dead as they went. They plunged into ocean depths and scaled mountains. The tangible harvest -- in space exploration, at least -- is clear. The space program has led to new technologies, materials and processes that save and enrich lives.
Although these results may be enough to satisfy many, I think the real reason people explore space is a deeper one. In the words of President George W. Bush in the aftermath of Columbia, "We are that part of creation which seeks to understand all creation. We find the best among us, send them forth into unmapped darkness and pray they will return." This desire to go is the powerful spotlight illuminating the faces found in the film archives: the faces of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee of Apollo 1; of Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Judy Resnick, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe of the Challenger; and Columbia's now familiar crew -- Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon. Each of them understood the Psalmist's heart ...
Where can I go from your spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go to the heavens, you are there;
If I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
If I settle on the far side of the sea,
Even there your hand will guide me,
Your right hand will hold me fast.
This latest generation of explorers rushed to reach a new and better vantage point -- a place where they could see just a bit more of God's creation. While adults are mourning the latest casualty in humanity's quest for space, boys and girls too young to understand the enormity of this loss are looking skyward with longing in their hearts. The familiar hallway, the eager smiles, the bouncing walks and confident waves -- we will see them all again. I am certain of it.
Editor's note: Dr. Truell Hyde is an astronaut-in-waiting. He has applied for the past five astronaut selection cycles and in 1996, 1998 and 2000 was placed on the "highly qualified" list.