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To Be a Spaceman.

Thursday, February 6, 2003

The Standard of Humanity Unbound.

Spaceship Columbia,
Homeward Bound.

Heroes by the Power of the Dreaming.

from Bald Mountain near Rachel, Nevada

One of humankind's last great flying machines broke apart in flames and explosions, high in the clear blue sky of last Saturday morn, ending the lives of a brave band of explorers, and stopping for a season the flight of hope.

We are broken-hearted here in the cold desert, each of us according to our private measure of intensity and passion. The spaceship Columbia, homeward bound, soared almost directly above our Bald Mountain hideaway. A few of us arose early to watch and meditate. From the desert floor we saw a speeding silver streak of wondrous aspiration.

Precious few minutes later, the nurturing soil of Texas lay wounded by the wreckage and torn bodies of the felled explorers and their broken vessel. The thousands upon thousands of battered and blackened fragments spiraled downward, and tumbled through the crisp wintry air, and dropped upon farms and village squares, highways and backyards, lakes and playgrounds. The forces of bold life and quick death were falling like acrid tears upon the psyche of a nation, but all we could do was... nothing, but wait... and pick up the pieces.

What Ill-Defined Damage is Done?

We wonder now about the video witness of tragedy, wonder what ill-defined damage it might do to the collective. Already the timid and the squeamish are crying out: End it! End manned space travel now, once and for all. I can't bear the failure.

Does each soul among the trillions of souls live forever? Is the sure death of the flesh of the individual sufficient reason to creep into a hidey hole? Do the cadre of explorers cringe and retreat when some among them perish on the frontier?

We mourn the seven who died, fellow human beings of the Planet Earth, individuals with names: Dave Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, William McCool, and Ilan Ramon. As initiates of the fiery host of mythic tragedy, the seven are being born again in clouds of mystery and lore. Each is newly consecrated as Hero by the power of the dreaming.

Then we remember that the sky is fallen down. Now begins the tiresomely ponderous dirge of the denouement. Now begins the trial of accusation, conspiracy, and retrenchment.

Humanity Unbound.

Our thoughts turn away from the soil, upward again to the nearby heavens, where three explorers bear the standard of humanity unbound: Kenneth Bowersox, Donald Pettit, and Nikolai Mikhailovich Budarin. Orbiting with uncertainty on the International Space Station, the crew of Expedition Six unloads supplies from the just-arrived Progress 10 cargo ship, and prepares new experiments into the dynamics of muscle loss in weightlessness.

Already the planners down below are scheming to end the Expedition early and abandon the Space Station.

USA's fleet of three space shuttles is grounded on the backlot of cautionary confusion. Russia's auxiliary fleet of Soyuz and Progress spacecraft provides sufficient short-term substitutes for the shuttles, but only if USA can muster the will to regroup quickly and hold the course. That's unlikely.

A Stellar Dance of Profound Value.

Hearts are broken by loss of things held dear. In childhood, so long ago, some of us looked to the stars. Some of us tonight in the desert of our maturity hold dear to ideas gathered in youth, to the idea of man in space, to the idea of rocket ships to the moon, to the idea of adventure and exploration beyond the bounds of Earth.

Like so many other great flying machines and the brave passengers aboard, Columbia and its crew of seven were lifted to freedom on the wings of awesome rockets and propelled to adventure and accomplishment by a sense of mission and discovery. Our dear ideas became their present realities in a stellar dance of action and vicariousness of profound intellectual and emotional value. How long must we wait to be spacemen, to be spacewomen once again?

| David Ebenezer Baldwin Bowles |
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