Today is the fifth anniversary of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere following a successful 16-day mission. Later investigation determined that a hole had been punched into one of the wings by a piece of insulation that had fallen off from the external fuel tank during lift-off.
It was mid-afternoon here in France when the first images and information came our way: NASA's space shuttle Columbia had disintegrated upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere; all aboard were lost.
French news TV was as saturated with the same dramatic images as any American station could be, and I, who had watched the coverage of the tragic explosion of Challenger back in 1986 all day long, found myself watching both TV and computer monitor long into the evening.
I didn't "know" Columbia's astronauts the way I "knew" Challenger's: after all, one member of Challenger's crew was Christa McAuliffe, who was to be America's First Teacher in Space. And Judith Reznick was an alum of Carnegie Mellon University, where my husband was a graduate student at the time of the tragedy.
But I ached for the loss of Columbia in much the same way I ached for Challenger: another setback for humankind's ability to shake free of the bounds of Earth. While I had long since come to realize that the closest I was ever going to come to being an astronaut was riding in a simulator at the Kennedy Space Center... these tragic setbacks were somehow very personal to me. That we have continued with manned missions at all is a testament to courage and perseverance.
So today I say: Hail, Columbia. Hail to the brave men and women who have died in the effort to expand our knowledge and horizons. May we think of you and honor you today. Hail and godspeed.