From Challenger to Columbia

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(Host) Morning Edition Host Steve Delaney offers the following reflections on the loss of Columbia.

(Delaney) On Saturday morning I was watching the “Today” program on NBC. It’s a habit. I haven’t worked for NBC News for almost 15 years, but there is still an emotional attachment. Suddenly, the screen was filled with images that, for me, were all too familiar.

In January of l986, they sent me to Cape Canaveral to cover a space launch. It was so routine that NBC’s main science and space guy had been given time off to go skiing. I was there as a backup, and was not expected to go on the air. In fact, when that awful twisted Y-shaped column of smoke appeared, we weren’t even linked into the network. That changed of course, and for the next few days, I stood in front of TV cameras at Cape Canaveral and tried to provide some perspective on the pictures that we all still recall.

And last Saturday morning, as soon as I saw that vapor trail, before the news people had explained what it was, I knew. And I was back there again, back in Florida on a bitter cold morning 17 years ago, trying to explain the impossible, trying to set aside my own sense of shock and put some meaning into the story I was reporting.

It was the first space launch I had ever seen, and as it turned out, the only one. I have a framed picture of the crew on my desk. Officially it was called Mission L-51, and unofficially it was the “teacher-in-space” flight, because Christa McAuliffe of New Hampshire was one of the seven. I’ve just had to look at the back of the photo for the names of the others. My memory of them, once bright, needs refreshment. Commander Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Judy Resnik, Greg Jarvis, Ron McNair and Ellison Onizuka.

My most graphic memory of that time is when a helicopter flew out over the ocean and was photographed dropping a floral wreath in memory of the seven lost astronauts. And as the wreath hit the water, the video showed seven dolphins surfacing around it. I reported that. I don’t know what it meant, but I hope it meant something.

I was not a specialist in science or in flight. But at the Cape I had the help and guidance of the one man in American journalism who knows virtually everything about the space program. His name is Jay Barbree, and he’s been covering space for NBC since before John Glenn’s first orbiting flight, more than 40 years ago. Jay Barbree is still at it, and on Saturday his great knowledge lent strength and dignity to the NBC coverage. I was moved by his comment that mankind will move beyond this tragedy, and forge onward into space, because it’s man’s destiny to explore, and he cited the human trek out of Africa and across the world.

We will stay in space, the old reporter said, because we have to, because we can’t help it. I think he’s right. But l think there’s another reason, and President Ronald Reagan touched on it when he spoke at a memorial service at Cape Canaveral after the Challenger tragedy. He praised the lost astronauts and said they had “slipped the surly bonds of Earth.” That was a quote from one of the most eloquent odes to flight ever written. It suggests that there’s another reason why pilots fly. It says in part:

“Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on silver wings.
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sunsplit clouds,
And done a hundred things you have not dreamed of:
Wheeled and soared and swung high in sunlit silence.
Hovering there…
And while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

John Gillespie McGee wrote that in 1941, before John Glenn became a pilot, before any of the Columbia crew were born. He flew, as many pilots do, because it’s intoxicating. It gets in the blood. We all may have, as Jay Barbree suggested, a genetic imperative that compels us as a culture to venture into space, as an extension of our heritage, as instinctive explorers.

But there’s something every one of us can feel as individuals about the allure of the sky. Even as passengers, there’s a thrill like no other when that rushing jet tilts up to break that surly bond. So we will go back there. We must. It’s in our genes, and in our blood. After Challenger it took three years for the U.S. to get back into space. I hope it’s not that long this time.

Steve Delaney is VPR’s Morning Edition host.

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