Few things in my short thirty-eight years have caused me to truly stop in my tracks and feel a deep sense of grief well up from somewhere deep inside. One of those times came when I was in college. I walked into a student union lounge and discovered it was strangely quiet…too quiet, with several students huddled around the television. I walked to the group and peered over someone’s shoulder, just as the news showed a replay of the space shuttle Challenger bursting into flame with its two massive booster rockets forking across the vast blue sky.
Then last Saturday, the unthinkable happened, this time not on take-off, but during the final descent, a stage of space flight that has never seen a disaster. The normal reentry of the space shuttle, having turned into a giant glider floating through the peaceful skies over the southern US, went wrong and abruptly ended the lives of several extraordinary people in an extraordinary machine. When I logged on the internet and first saw the words, “communication lost with space shuttle Columbia,” I again felt that grief rising within.
Like most normal people, I didn’t personally know any of the astronauts, and to be honest, the shuttle missions had become so “routine” I rarely followed them anymore. That was a mistake. The grief I felt when I saw those final moments of the Columbia tell me something about our human need to look higher and live more nobly. In an interview with Larry King on Sunday, a popular Christian author Max Lucado made a profound insight about these brave explorers. They are our heroes, he said. They embody the longing we all feel to reach out and touch the stars. And when they perish like this, we grieve for them, for the dreams we share, and the dreams they fulfilled.
In this one thing we take solace. Their sacrifice—and they very well knew the risks—pushes the envelope out a little farther for the next pioneers who will courageously follow their lead.