Jack Lousma, the commander of the third Columbia shuttle flight in March 1982, was shoveling snow outside his home in Ann Arbor, Mich., when his son called from Texas to say, "Turn on the TV, something has happened to Columbia." Lousma, who was also a crew member on one of the Skylab missions in the 1970s, is a retired Marine pilot who seems unflappable in person and on the phone.
He says he thinks the age of the aircraft "had nothing to do with what happened. It has had only about 30 flights and is designed to be able to fly 100 missions. It is also rigorously inspected every time it comes back, and equipment is replaced where necessary."
Lousma says tiles came off Columbia when he flew it, as they did this time, but NASA scientists told him the vehicle looked OK for re-entry. When the astronauts later checked the underside of the vehicle they found that no tiles had been dislodged. "The tile system has been reliable all these years," he says. "I'm confident the telemetry that was received before the breakup is being traced and checked" for clues as to what happened.
After previous tragedies in which astronauts were killed, dating back to the Apollo 1 fire on the launch pad that took the lives of Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee and the Jan. 28, 1986, Challenger explosion, which, like the Columbia tragedy, killed seven astronauts, there were questions about space travel and whether it is worth the cost in money and lives. Lousma says there are both tangible and intangible benefits to space exploration. They include, he said, "satellite communications and the creation of new products and services that benefit us all. That's what gives us the economic edge in the world. As soon as we forget that, and we regress to not being first in innovation, we're going to lose our economic leadership. We need the space program to maintain our lead in that area." President Bush has pledged to continue the shuttle program.
Lousma says space exploration also "demonstrates our national will and desire to lead the world in lots of different ways. For these and less tangible reasons, we must continue on. We can't weaken. As soon as we become wimps and sit on the sidelines, we're going to lose the edge and not just in the (space) area."
The spirit of adventure has always driven human beings, from the ancient explorers who braved bad weather, rough seas, starvation and disease to discover new lands, to the modern space program. The possibility of death failed to deter those who went before. When one fell, others replaced him to achieve the goal and pursue new ones.
The explorers Lewis and Clark set out on an incredible journey 200 years ago through uncertain terrain with numerous challenges. Now it's the astronauts' turn. Space may be a more daunting frontier, but the nature of exploration -- the nature of living -- can put lives and limbs in danger.
When the Challenger exploded and when Apollo 13 was in trouble, messages came from all over the world, as they are now. Regardless of culture, language or religion, people seem united in their support and concern. In a world where few things unite, space exploration remains a rare cohesive force.
While a reporter in Houston, I had the privilege of meeting some of the first astronauts. They did, indeed, have "the right stuff." They were uniquely motivated and committed to contribute to science, to humanity and to the world. One of those "original seven" astronauts was Gus Grissom. He probably spoke for everyone who puts his or her life at risk by traveling to the "final frontier" when he said, "If we die, we want people to accept it. We're in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life."
That seems as good a reminder as any to continue the work in memory of those who have died, not only because of the benefits that accrue to humankind, but because they would want us to.
Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.