Still challenged

The destruction of the space shuttle Columbia on February 1-the oldest orbiter in the NASA fleet-and of its valiant crew, will assume an unshakable place in our collective memory. Unlike the Challenger in 1986, which burst on take-off before the wide eyes of children watching in classrooms across the country, this generally unheralded mission proceeded largely in anonymity until minutes before completion. But that nondescript impression changed instantly when television pictures of the spacecraft breaking up against the blue Texas sky sliced across our placid Saturday morning routines. Those images, like the images of the Challenger plummeting into the sea, will long trouble our sleep.

Well they should. With the exception of the Challenger catastrophe, we had grown used to the regularity of shuttle flight, and hardly took notice of Columbia’s own January launch-the way we nonchalantly defy gravity each time we fly in a plane or even drive a car. Yet the fiery end of the flight, coupled with the brilliance and the valor of the women and men lost, will always beckon to us.

President George W. Bush’s address to the nation balanced a sense of national sorrow with the need to continue the exploration of space. It did not rise to the heights of Ronald Reagan’s Challenger eulogy, but it could not have. America and the world operate in a different orbit now, one precariously positioned between the still-vivid...

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