by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
February 6, 2003
ON A BEAUTIFUL PLANET, SUCH TERRIBLE THINGS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- In the week following the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia, the most enduring image was not the comet-like trail burning white across the blue Texas sky, or the charred helmet resting in the piney woods. It was the NASA footage of Col. Ilan Ramon, the handsome Israeli fighter pilot, floating out of a tunnel into a room full of weightlessness, his arms spread like a bird in flight and an expression of transcendental happiness upon his face.
Was it only 100 years ago that the Wright brothers went to Kitty Hawk to test the potentiality of manned flight? How have we gone from hop-skip-and-jumping over the sand to landing on the moon and exploring the stars in such a very short time?
Who among us would not like to experience Col. Ramon's flying happiness? Who among us would not like see the fragile and lovely blue ball that is Earth from space? Who among us would work that hard or risk that much?
The Columbia astronauts knew their mission was dangerous. All of them fought to go. We can pray that their deaths came quickly and before they knew it was coming. We can sympathize with their loved ones. But we must remember that the high price they paid was paid willingly, and for something of great value.
We, the people left behind, are paying a high price now. We mourn the loss of their intelligence, spirit and determination.
These were amazingly accomplished and interesting people: Col. Rick D. Husband, a test pilot with more than 3,800 hours of flight time in more than 40 types of aircraft; Dr. Laurel Salton Clark, who dove with Navy Seals, conducted medical evacuations from submarines and served as a flight surgeon aboard a Marine attack squadron; Dr. Kalpana Chawla, born in a small town near New Delhi, who became doctor of aerospace engineering and a citizen of the United States; Cpt. David M. Brown, a Navy doctor and test pilot who put in time as a circus acrobat, unicyclist and stilt walker; Lt. Col. Michael P. Anderson, an African-American Air Force astronaut and physicist; Cmdr. William C. McCool, an athlete, guitar-player and test pilot who graduated second in his class at the Naval Academy.
Now that they are dead, we will hear how NASA cut corners on safety, how it was warned about the possibility of take-off debris damaging the heat-resistant tiles under the spacecraft's wings, how it fired the investigators who gave the warnings. We will hear how Congress starved the space budget to fund a Star Wars defense system that will never work - but which will certainly keep the aerospace industry alive at a time when most other industries have fled the country.
Those of us who can bear it will compare the men and women we lost with those who sent them there: the unelected blood-mad president who ducked even his own National Guard service; the gaggle of venal "chickenhawks" around him who screech for war but have never had the courage to serve themselves; the cretins who want to militarize space for profit and empire; the ones who like to fill it with debris; the greedy, bought people who populate Congress; the fearful, status quo-invested journalists; the rich media owners, who may be the greatest beneficiaries of our corrupted democracy.
Maybe we should send them all into space. Maybe if they saw the planet from afar, they would learn to treasure it instead of trashing it for profit. Maybe they would learn the hard lesson that we are all on this spinning blue ball together. Maybe they would gain some of the wisdom of the Arthurian legend.
Look down, young Arthur, Merlin said as they flew magically over England. What do you see? And Arthur saw a land without boundaries, green with growing, blue with flowing waters, nurturing the people and animals who lived upon it.
Col. Ramon saw the same thing. As the shuttle flew over the Middle East, he saw land - very dry, brown land - surrounded by salt water. From space, he couldn't see Palestinians forcibly crammed into ghettos, or Israelis living fearfully in their cities yet protecting their illegal settlements.
No, you don't see hatred from outer space. You don't see racism, nationalism, naked aggression, oil or water lust, poverty or greed. For that you have to come down to Earth.
Col. Ramon brought with him into space a letter from a Holocaust survivor. Dr. Brown read it, and in his last email to his parents, he wrote: "I was stunned such a beautiful planet could harbor such bad things."
Sometimes we are all stunned that this beautiful planet can harbor such terrible things.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.