For the second time in 17 years we watched in horror as a space shuttle blew up, killing its heroic crew. Our shock will be followed by mourning and then questioning of the future of the US space program and man's future in space. But as we mourn, it's important to put this tragedy in perspective.
To do anything that is meaningful in life requires risk. Many of the men who tried to cross seas or mountains did not survive. Explorers and pioneers risked their lives and many lost them. There are no guarantees in life. But without risks, there are no achievements.
The Columbia shuttle crew knew these risks before they left the earth forever. They knew that Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died in 1967 in a fire that swept through their Apollo 1 capsule as it sat on the launch pad. They knew of cosmonauts who died when their capsule depressurised on re-entry. And, of course, they knew of the deaths of the Challenger seven during lift-off in 1986.
About 400 men and women have been in space since Russian Yuri Gagarin and American Alan Shepard became the first humans to venture there in 1961. Just as accidents occurred in the early days of aviation – and unfortunately still do today – they had to be expected in space flight.
But these accidents should not deter us from making space and other worlds part of mankind's domain. When the first humans gazed out of caves or across savanna at the moon and stars and wandering lights in the sky, they showed themselves to be human by wondering what they were looking at. The philosopher Aristotle made clear what it is to be human when he opened his Metaphysics with the observation: "All men by nature desire to know."
These accidents should not deter us from making space and other worlds part of mankind's domain.
All of us have the capacity to understand the world around us. And it is only by choosing to exercise that most human and wonderful rational capacity that we discover the means for material survival and prosperity – how to plant food, build shelters, cure diseases and tame our environment – and that we fulfil our spiritual need to know what those lights in the sky really are, where life came from, how old is the universe, whether there are other worlds, and what is on them. It is only by choosing to think that we can discover how to build telescopes to study other worlds and build spaceships to travel to them.
Yes, space travel and most other tasks involve risk. But the risks of choosing timidity and apathy are even worse. They would result in material and spiritual stagnation, regression and death. We would be worse than mindless, dull, indifferent cattle, because they have no choice about their state whereas humans do.
After the shock wears off and we wipe away our tears, we will certainly re-examine the US space program. That program has faced challenges before – most notably after the Apollo 1 and the shuttle Challenger disasters. Reports during the past decade have suggested that another shuttle disaster could occur during the period that it would take to construct the US-led space station; unfortunately, those fears have been realized.
The station has been criticized for huge budget overruns. Construction costs were capped by the US Congress at US$25 billion, but to complete it as planned would cost US$30 billion. A new shuttle could cost US$6 billion, money that NASA doesn't have.
A new and radical approach to men in space will likely be needed, not because we want to retreat to our caves, not because we want to turn our backs on what it is to be human, but because we want to progress, because we want to open space to all mankind the way aircraft opened the skies. The revolutions in computers, the Internet and telecommunications suggest that private parties could bring down the cost of access to space and even construct private stations.
But when we reach the day that thousands – maybe even millions – of human beings can travel to space, there no doubt will still be tragedies. Although we try to prevent them, they are part of life. We should celebrate the lives and aspirations of the astronauts we've lost. We should be thankful that the heroic crew of the shuttle Columbia, and so many men and women like them, choose to take the risks necessary to reach the best in themselves and in the process to reach new human heights.
It is because they strive, because they seek the best, that their deaths so deeply affect us. But let's let their example inspire us as well to continue to reach for the stars.