Saturday, February 01, 2020

Looking through Columbia's windows

Merritt Island, FL
December 2019
This photo originally shared on Instagram
I still remember it like it was yesterday. 17 years ago, a quiet Saturday morning just like this one.

I had woken up before the rest of my fam to catch the shuttle's return from space. The avgeek in me follows launches and landings like some folks might stalk sports teams, musicians, or film fests. Astronauts and engineers are my rock stars.

Columbia was coming home after a rare and groundbreaking 2-week science mission. Like launch, re-entry has always been one of the highest risk moments of any mission. But this was Columbia, the matriarch of the shuttle orbiter fleet. Everything was supposed to be routine.

We soon learned, again, that nothing is ever routine. She shattered high in the atmosphere, her wreckage raining over Texas, her rock star crew gone. Just like that.

Seeing the windshield frame here in Florida, not far from where she left Earth for the final time, was, Iike viewing the Challenger wreckage nearby, a haunting experience. This was once a crucial part of a billion-dollar national asset. And all it took was one small hole to render it absolutely vulnerable to the relentless forces of physics and nature.

Once again I stood transfixed not so much by the artifact, but by what it represented. Seven now-lost souls had once peered back at the planet through these openings. Their commander, Rick Husband, and pilot Willie McCool sat just inside them, fully expecting to bring their crew home safely.

We know what happened, but it'll never seem normal or fair. Heroes deserve better rates. The rest of us deserve to have our rock stars around just a little longer, because they're never quite finished exploring, or inspiring others to kickstart their own journeys.

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