Tragedy at 200,000 feet

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 8, 2003

As word spread about the Space Shuttle Columbia’s apparent break up en route to Kenneday Space Center in Cape Kennedy, Fla., Saturday, the nation experienced shock and concern on a grandiose scale.

Seven astronauts were lost, and a nation, just beginning to heal from the devastating effects of the September 11 events and on edge as it closely watched the nation’s leaders in anticipation of a possible war with Iraq, was jolted into another nerve-wracking ordeal over what caused the shuttle disaster.

Although the probe into what caused the break-up is ongoing, most communities felt immense relief, mixed in with their grief, upon learning that the incident most likely wasn’t terrorist related.

In a touching memorial held at Johnson’s Space Center, Tuesday, President Bush recited comments given by each astronaut in the days preceding their journey. It was apparent from those comments that each one of the shuttle’s crew was prepared for whatever dangers the trip presented and excited about the adventure to come.

It remains to be seen what effect this tragedy will have on NASA’s space program, but in the opinion of some of Alabama’s local and state government officials, the tragedy will not lead to the program’s demise.

&uot;I was shocked by the news of the Shuttle Columbia’s destruction and the death of her crew,&uot; Congressman Terry Everett said. &uot;Many of us have vivid memories of where we were 17 years ago when the Challenger exploded, and during the terrible events on September 11.

The Columbia disaster certainly ranks equal in sadness to those dark moments in recent American history.&uot;

Everett said that although the disaster is tragic, we should take some comfort in the knowledge that the astronauts died doing what they loved.

&uot;All loss of life is tragic, but it is especially painful when those who represent our best and brightest are suddenly taken from us,&uot; he said. &uot;The crew of Columbia gave their lives pushing back the boundaries of the unknown while striving to better all humankind.

For certain, their mission was not in vain, and their bravery and heroism will never be forgotten.&uot;

As the chairman of a new House Subcommittee with oversight over military space programs, Everett has a decided interest in NASA’s space program.

&uot;I can tell you that America’s future both in commerce and defense is tied to space,&uot; he said. &uot;We cannot ignore it, nor should we.

We owe it to the crew of Columbia, Challenger, Apollo One, and all those who, despite the risks, dared to dream, to continue the beneficial programs of space exploration and experimentation.

I am confident that we will do so.&uot;

State Representative Charles Newton said although the loss of the shuttle was tremendous in its impact on the space program, the loss of the seven shuttle crewmembers was far more tragic.

&uot;I was so impressed by the astronauts’ resumes – they are far from being average people,&uot; Newton said. &uot;They were well-trained and accomplished in so many fields. It’s tragic when you have so many lives that were so valuable to our country lost suddenly like that.&uot;

Newton agrees with Everett that the space program is a viable part of our national interests. Despite the shuttle tragedy, he doesn’t foresee the space program being curtailed.

&uot;I would think instead that they would move ahead to figure out what went wrong,&uot; he said. &uot;The space program is clearly a dangerous venture. But I think we have so much invested in it now, and there is so much that can be learned through the scientific studies that they do, that I don’t believe that the disaster will put an end to the program. I think there would be a negative impact from the Columbia event only if they find out that someone has been negligent or some other similar cause. The investigation will determine that.&uot;

On the Senate side, Senator Wendell Mitchell also was saddened by the Columbia mishap. &uot;I think it is a national tragedy that ranks up there with the Challenger tragedy and the assassination of President Kennedy and other public figures,&uot; Mitchell said. &uot;We have advanced so much in the space program, but we still haven’t eliminated all of the risks. I don’t think we ever will.

Mitchell said he was particularly disturbed by Saturday’s events because he is a big fan of space exploration.

&uot;I have followed the space program since we first walked on the moon,&uot; he said. &uot;I was following Columbia’s return to earth closely, even though the shuttle missions have become kind of routine. To hear of this tragedy was devastating.&uot;