The Challenger explosion 17 years ago impressed upon people across the United States the dangers of manned space flight. The tragic mission that included Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space, had an even greater effect on the thousands of schoolchildren who watched the launch from Kennedy Space Center or via live, nationwide newscasts.
It was a disaster that everyone swore they would never forget, and to some extent, that was true. But those memories fade and become less vivid, while the younger students at St. John’s are not old enough to recall the original event.
The intervening space of 17 years dulled the tragedy and, until Saturday, shuttle missions were considered commonplace-hardly newsworthy at all. In that light, it is worthwhile to remember the magnitude of the astronauts’ undertaking.
The universe is estimated to be between 12 and 18 billion years old, making the size of our knowable universe some 24 to 36 billion light years in diameter.
Within that mind boggling expanse of space, there are uncounted millions of billions of galaxies, each one of which contains hundreds of billions of stars.
Our own Milky Way, one of those millions of billions, and yet only a tiny speck amidst a nigh-infinite dark matter sea, comprises only 200 to 700 billion of those stars.
One of those hundreds of billions of stars, our Sun, sits on the Orion-Cygnus arm, 27,000 light years from galactic central point, which it orbits roughly every 200 million years.
Objects like 1996 Tl66, a tiny ball of rock and ice, ring our Sun with orbits that can stretch to 12 billion miles, though 7.4 billion miles closer the familiar planet, Pluto can be found.
Here we sit on Earth, a spinning ball of mud a little under 8,000 miles in diameter and a modest 93 million miles distant from the sun. Six billion of us currently dot the planet’s surface, living out our brief years starting wars and ending them, building skyscrapers and knocking them down, giving birth and dying.
Of those six billion and of all those who came before, a select few have turned and lifted themselves from the cities and the mountains, from the towns, the forests and the plains. Among them have been Russians, Americans, French, Germans, Japanese, Mongolians, South Africans, and most recently and tragically, Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space.
Men and women from every hemisphere have struggled to loose Earth’s bonds-if only for a time-to make that first step into the vast, cold and marvelous vacuum of space, populated with quasars and nebulas and novas and galaxies and now, humans.
These select few have left the cradle of mankind to float weightless in the void and watch the Earth far away from above. No longer clinging to the dirt that bound them once, the astronauts become as free from Earth as any creature now living can ever hope to be-free from its wonders and free from its wars, free from its safety and free from its strife. How terrible it must be to leave the world and all it’s wonders for the harsh abyss beyond; how terrible it must be to return.
The crew of the Columbia, people who had given their lives to, and ultimately for, the greatest and most daunting of all human endeavors, died in the skies above Texas Saturday. In the course of their lives, they came as close to heaven as the living can get. Let it be that they rest there now.